Families are messy, maddening, endearing, nurturing, comical and lonely places to spend a life, or part of one. In "Last Looks," the new drama getting its world premiere at Center Stage, playwright Grace McKeaney goes a long way toward capturing their rich and ambivalent nature.

Those accustomed to pat climaxes and neat formats may be put off by the work's tendency to sprawl. But the sprawl encompasses some very real characters, giving vent to a whole flux of authentic emotions. Acted to a fare-thee-well by a superlative cast and staged with what appears to be effortless realism, the production confirms the reputation of Center Stage, now beginning its 20th season, as a regional theater of impeccable credentials.

I'm not sure what other theater would risk the considerable resources Center Stage has lavished on this drama -- a kind of "On Golden Pond," but with far more depth and integrity, which is to say, far less commercial appeal. McKeaney is less interested in dramatic incident than she is in the changing textures of a day, a night and the next morning, as the Morrow family closes down its home of 30-odd years on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Ray and Delia, the parents, are preparing to move to Santa Fe and they have summoned their grown children -- Guy, a hustler in the commodities market; Val, a nurse and divorced mother of two; and Clair, the cool egghead of the brood -- to sort out the imposing accumulation of possessions.

What they end up sorting out, of course, is the past -- the rancors and the joys, the continuing needs and frustrations that are as much a part of any family heritage as the Chippendale highboy. And since the past is inseparable, really, from the future, they find themselves groping tentatively for new moorings. McKeaney is anything but a sentimentalist, however. She has taken a hard, clear-eyed look at her characters. Even when they are being momentarily self-pitying, she is not. The dominant tone of the evening, in fact, is one of wry irony. For all their soul-scraping, the Morrows are often a very funny clan.

Since there are a lot of psyches to be explored (in addition to the five Morrows, the cast includes two grandchildren and a neighbor boy, now grown-up but still smarting from his childhood reputation as a dumbbell) and a lot of individual stories to be laid out, McKeaney's play sometimes suffers from a sort of literary wanderlust. What is remarkable, however, is that she has packed as much as she has into the three acts and that so much of it is right on key.

In that, she is immensely aided by a flawless production. Hugh Landwehr's set -- the back side of a three-story clapboard house, the adjoining garage and patio -- is, in its way, as impressive as Ming Cho Lee's awesome mountain for "K2" at Arena Stage. On the surface, Jackson Phippin's direction appears utterly faithful to the chaos of moving day. But it is actually astutely attuned to those passing moments when the truth pokes through the subterfuges and evasions that have been allowed to pile up along with the old catcher's mitt and the outdated prom dress.

There is hardly a false note in the production. Graham Beckel, as the nettlesome son, redeems an incipient heel with a performance that honors the hurt as well as the spite. His approach is characteristic of the company as a whole: Emery Battis and Gloria Cromwell, as the parents; Lucinda Jenny and Chris Weatherhead, as the sisters; Sarah Chodoff, as a third-generation brat; and John Procaccino, splendid as the neighborhood dolt who knows he's a dolt and therefore is less of one. They are all varying mixtures of pettiness and grandeur, fear and courage, selfishness and generosity, and the equation constantly shifts. Less gifted actors would draw conclusions; this cast goes with the shift.

By the end of the play, the characters have struggled to an understanding of one another. But it is only a partial understanding, prey to the further ravages of time and ego. The bric-a-brac in the Morrow attic can be disposed of. But, as McKeaney knows, a family is forever.

LAST LOOKS, by Grace McKeaney. Directed by Jackson Phippin; set, Hugh Landwehr; costumes, Linda Fisher; lighting, Judy Rasmuson; sound, Lewis Erskin; with Emery Battis, Gloria Cromwell, Chris Weatherhead, Graham Beckel, Lucinda Jenney, Sarah Chodoff, Josh MacFardland, John Procaccino. At Center Stage through Oct. 31.