TIN "REAL ESTATE," Louise Page's astute and aching play about the thorny brambles of family ties, Arena Stage has found a splendid and inspired follow-up to "Passion Play," another recent British drama that pried open modern relationships. After running away at age 18, Jenny comes home, returning unannounced after 20 years of silence, and she's changed -- independent, business-suited and briefcased. Despite suspicion and guilt feelings on the part of her mother Gwen and stepfather Dick, she's slowly reaccepted.

Things are deceptively placid in the months follolwing this strained reunion; beneath the cautious cordiality is a cold war. Ambitious Jenny is back for a reason -- she never does anything without a reason -- and the way she worms her way back into the heart of the family is chilling and sadly familiar.

Page expertly peels away layers of past events, revealing hidden ties and unhealed hurts. Her play is set in rural England, but it could, does, take place everywhere. "Real Estate" probes the knotty problems of the nuclear family -- do blood ties mean that we must love, or even like, those we are linked with under the name of "family?"

Page also asks why some women choose to have children -- is it for love? Or are there more selfish reasons, as Jenny coldly puts it, "to use their wombs before the warranty runs out"?

The dry and deep script is delicately handled by director Christopher Markle, whose touch with telling offhand moments is apparent in a quietly devastating scene in which Jenny casually discards the threadbare teddy bear her mother has been cherishing in hopes of her return. The play's themes are distilled in another deftly done scene in Gwen's real estate office, in which Jenny and Gwen disagree sharply over methods of doing business, an argument that reveals both the similarities and the irreparable rift between mother and daughter.

In Markle's hands, "Real Estate" has as much to do with physical language as with the spoken word. On their initial meeting, Jenny and her mother are wary, anxious, launching immediately into nervous chatter. Page's characters are calling to each other over a gulf of 20 years, and their body postures reflect that -- they keep their distance, in stiff, square-shouldered, self-protective stances, filling the empty pauses by chewing fingernails and smoking and exercising the dog.

"Real Estate" is well-acted by all: As Gwen, Halo Wines is a wonderfully brittle old bird who's built up a businesslike shell over her wounded heart; Stanley Anderson has seldom been as lovable as he is here, playing robust but lonely househusband Dick; Jeffrey Hayenga is a vulnerable and nurturing as Jenny's lover Eric. Tart and coolly chic, Fran Brill is terrific as the transparent and thoroughly modern Jenny, an unwitting mirror of her mother, who, though she seems the very model of the new independent woman, is self-destructively adept at deflecting emotions and human connections.

REAL ESTATE -- At Arena's Kreeger Theater through March 31.