On first impression, ''Before It Hits Home,'' a new play by Cheryl West, seems diffuse and maybe a little ramshackle, but by the time the tragedy is ended, the spectator has been completely enveloped by the events that takes place in this drama.
''Before It Hits Home,'' at Washington's Arena Stage, is a contemporary play that focuses on a family, mother, father, two sons and a grandson. The grandson's father is a musician always trying to make it and never really succeeding. What his parents don't know is that their beloved offspring is a bisexual who has AIDS. The script is never too definite as to how the man got the disease. When he learns the awesome truth, he is living with a woman and continuing a long-standing affair with a married male lover.
The lover tests negative. The woman's fate is a little less certain. This, however, is not the thrust of the play. The drama, at core, is about an American family and how the disease affects them.
The mother, a woman who worships her children, is destroyed by the information. She is simply not able to cope. On the other hand, the father, unable for most of his son's life to show the young man affection, proves the stronger of the parents. At first, he is enraged and tries to throw the boy out. When it becomes evident, however, that his son is close to death, the father takes on the kind of strength that is necessary to face this trauma.
The father is played with excellent control by Wally Taylor. While his grief is very real, he never overdoes. This is also true of all the other players, one of the nicer things about this production. There is no screaming. When the volume increases, there is good cause for it.
Michael Jayce is Wendal, the musician who has made a mess of his life, Trazana Beverley is his mother, Lee Simon Jr. is the second son, brother to the AIDS victim, and Sandra Reaves-Phillips is Maybelle, close friend to the mother of this family.
Maybelle is the only part of ''Before It Hits Home'' that plays with cliche. Maybelle is heavy, so there are some fat jokes. They, however, are not overdone, so no real offense is taken.
Beverley, a former Baltimorean, does superior work as the mother. Without ranting, she makes the character very real. This is a woman who is not terribly sophisticated but has led a good life. All she wanted was the same for her sons, and when she learns what has happened, she simply collapses.
The second act is the better of the two. The grief this family experiences is all too real. The first act is a little less even. It should, however, take form. In several instances, the musician does simultaneous scenes with his male and female lovers, talking to one then the other. It is a reasonably familiar device and in this case is intelligently employed. At present, however, the timing is slightly off. When it improves, the first act of this play should be as good as the second.
''Before It Hits Home'' will continue at Arena Stage in repertory with ''Born Guilty,'' another new play, through March 2. Call (202) 488-3300 for times and dates of performances.
"Before It Hits Home"
*** A family, mother, father and two grown sons, must face the fact that one of the sons has AIDS.
CAST: Michael Jayce, Cynthia Martells, Keith Randolph Smith, Trazana Beverley, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Wally Taylor, Ryan Richmond, Lee Simon Jr.
DIRECTOR: Tazewell Thompson
RUNNING TIME: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
TICKETS: (202) 488-3300