Three years ago TUTA Theatre introduced local audiences to French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce with a stellar production of Rules for Good Manners in the Modern World, his waspish but oddly affectionate exploration of social rituals (baptisms, weddings, funerals) based on a 19th-century guide to etiquette written by a French baroness.

It’s Only the End of the World, the company’s second Lagarce effort, deals with a situation for which there is no code of conduct. Louis is a 34-year-old writer dying of an unnamed disease, presumably AIDS since there are hints that he’s gay. (Lagarce himself died of AIDS in 1995, and France has proclaimed 2007 the “year of Lagarce” in honor of what would have been his 50th birthday.) After a long absence Louis comes home to the family for one last visit, planning to tell his mother, his younger sister and brother, and the sister-in-law he’s never met about his impending demise. Nothing goes quite as Louis imagined—for one thing he never gets around to making his big announcement. But Lagarce’s dissection of those intimate strangers known as immediate family is fierce, funny, and painfully honest, and TUTA’s production, a U.S. premiere, is both clever and true to the text, unfolding with precise inevitability.

This isn’t family dysfunction as it’s often depicted onstage, through startling revelations and acrimony a la Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County. There’s never any suggestion that Louis’ family rejects him for being gay or that his sexual identity is what caused him to turn his back on them years earlier. In fact Lagarce doesn’t really focus on plot—he’s more interested in how families use language to express both longing and revulsion. In this wordy script, nearly Woolf-ian in its use of interior monologue, the characters seem to address themselves even when talking to others, as if seeking reassurance that the way they perceive things is the way they really are. In the prologue, when Louis reveals to the audience his planned visit and its purpose, he asks the audience, “Have I not always been—for them and for others—have I not always been a calm and collected man?”

Perhaps, but also maddeningly detached. Even his placid mother says to him, “You’ll mumble two or three words in reply or else you’ll just smile, which is more or less the same thing.” His family members make up for how little Louis has to say with torrents of words, many revealing their resentment of his lack of attention. His sister, Suzanne, who was still a child when he left, upbraids him for sending them nothing but “little notes, occasional phrases, one or two throwaway phrases” on postcards. His sister-in-law gently but pointedly asks if he even knows how his brother, Anthony, earns his living. He works in a toolmaking factory, she says, though she acknowledges that she isn’t exactly clear on what he does: “He fabricates tools. I mean I assume that’s what he does. It stands to reason, doesn’t it?”

Anthony harbors the most obvious grudge against Louis. Like many siblings left behind after the eldest child’s departure, he’s assumed—and resents—responsibilities that no one ever asked him to shoulder. He also decries the long-held family notion that Louis remained out of touch because he wasn’t loved sufficiently. “What I want to say to you,” Anthony tells Louis, “is that you lacked for nothing and you were never submitted to anything one can call really bad. Even injustice and ugliness or disgrace with all its attendant humiliations were things you were protected from and never experienced.”

Louis knows this—he knows he hasn’t been maligned or neglected. The mystery of the play resides in his motives for staying apart from his family and for returning. In an early monologue he ruefully recognizes that he’s endured fewer tribulations than they have: “I understood then that this absence of love I complain about and which always functioned as the one and only justification for my cowardice without me ever being aware of this, that this absence of love always made others suffer much more than myself.” He made his decision to come home after waking up in the middle of the night “with the strange and yet indestructible idea that I was being loved while still alive in the same way I was to be loved when dead.” Like many who live in self-imposed exile, Louis’ isolation has its roots in some tangled notion of insulating himself from loss. “Being alone, there’s no risk,” he says. The link between Louis and Stephen Dedalus becomes apparent when he says “dignity and silence” are his watchwords, calling to mind Dedalus’s statement that “silence, exile, and cunning” are his only arms. But unlike Joyce’s protagonist, Louis hasn’t fled an oppressive religious or class system or indeed any other kind of oppression.

Zeljko Djukic’s staging preserves the tensile, layered austerity of Lagarce’s language (translated by Augy Hayter) and literally enlarges the characters: the occasional use of live-feed video projections turns the actors into talking heads against a side wall of the theater. In a clever twist, the furnishings of John Dalton’s set—a cutaway house—get flipped in the second act, with the dining room table and chairs moved to the lawn, suggesting that the family is turning itself inside out trying to understand what Louis’ return means.

It’s Only the End of the World doesn’t trade in easy pieties or rely on emotional accessibility, and some viewers will undoubtedly be annoyed by its static nature. Early on the cast seems ill at ease with Lagarce’s recursive language and odd rhythms (the printed script has practically no punctuation). But as the story unfolds the performers grow into their roles. Andy Hager’s Anthony is particularly good, delivering a grueling second-act monologue with controlled passion. As Louis, Chris Cantelmi exhibits a pained Cheshire-cat grin that captures the disarming, distancing demeanor the family matriarch mentions, and Alice Wedoff as Suzanne veers believably between bratty gibes and vulnerable confusion. By the end they make a convincing family. Only family members could know so little about one another’s motives yet long so passionately for sympathy and understanding from one another. Lagarce’s portrait of how we attract and repel our first loved ones offers a witty but somber rejoinder to the forced family togetherness of the holidays.v