Rated 3.0 Ray Tatar takes the name of his theater—California Stage—quite seriously. He specializes in small, thoughtfully mounted productions that resonate with our state’s landscape, literature and history.

Tatar’s current show is a case in point. The play is called Darlin’, and it is set against a migrant labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley during the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression pushed a desperate migration out of Oklahoma and Arkansas into California.

Author Charlotte Samples matches a struggling migrant family—a single dad with a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter—with a female photographer from the city, sent by the government to document conditions of the labor camp. And Samples can create 3-D female characters, something that gave John Steinbeck trouble; his women were either angels or whores.Samples has come up with a honey of a script, tapping into tense family relationships and flirting with romance, but mostly dealing with the balance between dreams and realistic expectations.

The California Stage production starts with a nice set (by Tatar) and an age-appropriate cast, ranging from virtually professional actors to teens playing teens. On the high end, in terms of maturity and ability, are Mark Hoffman and Regina Cabral (a University of California at Santa Cruz theater grad). Michael Rowe brings an endearing goofiness to a small role, and Robert Cound contributes as a fiddler. High school students Jim Taugher and Anthony Kesich play teens, and Alexyss Valdez plays the central character: a bright, brave kid in a tough situation, holding onto mementos of her dead mom.

Director Michelle Koehler scores emotional points in quite a few scenes, such as when the young men get up their nerve at a dance, or when father and son come to blows. But, at other junctures, things move by fits and starts, or scenes shift without enough connectivity and flow.