Allie Bartelski
Betty Hart and Jason Loughlin in Keeping Watch

Theatrical Outfit's superlative Southern drama Keeping Watch cuts between two locations that neatly book-end small-town life. One picturesque spot overlooks the town and a river to provide a popular gathering place for high school boozing and make-out sessions. The other setting is the cemetery, which provides the final resting place for all of the town's inhabitants, no matter how much life they may have ahead of them.

Directed by Tom Key and starring a terrific young cast, Keeping Watch makes an impressive world premiere at Theatrical Outfit. Young playwright Thomas Ward reveals sound instincts for piquing an audience's interest and building dramatic tension, and Keeping Watch shows insights into Southern life and spiritual dilemmas without resorting to country clichés.

Apart from introductory and closing moments at a church, Keeping Watch switches between two seemingly unrelated meetings. At the cemetery, Joseph (Brik Berkes), the widowed preacher of a prominent local church, reluctantly becomes drawn into conversation with young, free-spirited Laura (Susie Grimley), who brings fast food and a beach chair to a graveside visit. It's like the "meet cute" of a romantic comedy, except that Keeping Watch minimizes the potential romance and emphasizes the characters' more complex traits. When Joseph admits that funerals are his favorite part of his job, his morbid streak seems surprisingly sensible.

Over the river we see a reunion of three estranged high school buddies. Uptight Johnny (Scott Warren) arrives with his African-American wife, Claire (Betty Hart), and voices concern about the reaction of his party-hearty pals Mike and Phil (Jason Loughlin and Travis Smith). Adding to the awkwardness, Johnny leads a successful life in Birmingham, while his former friends seem stuck in dead-end jobs, but Mike and Phil prove to be deeper than they initially seem.

Keeping Watch features numerous funny observations: If you live in Alabama and own a guitar, it's all but mandatory to know the opening chords of "Sweet Home Alabama." Joseph expresses chagrin about the state of modern religion, replete with TV ads and Web cams, but fortunately the play never becomes too "churchy." The spiritual themes provide undercurrents without ever swamping the conversations. At times Keeping Watch feels like a more casual kindred spirit to HBO's "Six Feet Under," only less concerned with lurid button-pushing. Ward carefully balances light banter, concern for mortality and attention to how lifelong relationships ebb and flow. Hey, this guy's good.

Keeping Watch. Through June 10. Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $16.20-$54. The Balzer Theater at Herren's, 84 Luckie St. 678-528-1500.