September 18, 2014
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Theatre Review
Surreal and stunning ’Sparrow grass’ at Trinity
Don Fowler

“Sparrow Grass,” the first of three new plays being performed at Trinity Rep, is at times surreal, at times shocking, and always stunning.

Artistic Director Curt Columbus has written a modern family drama that calls upon Racine’s “Phedre,” the fall of the Roman Empire and even a reference to Odysseus. Directed flawlessly by Brian McEleney, “Sparrow Grass” redefines the dysfunctional family.

The action takes place in a high-rise apartment, where Paula (Phyllis Kay) is waiting for the return of her husband, Ralph (Richard Donelly), who has been serving as a military contractor in a war zone for the past three years.

Nate, Ralph’s prodigal son (Tyler Lansing Weaks), shows up for the homecoming, joining his stepsister, Teddie (Jamie Rosenstein). What we witness, according to Columbus, is “the destruction of a family due to misdirected passion.”

I’ll say! Incestuous relationships are at the center of the action, past and present, as stepmother and stepson and stepsister and stepbrother raise the sexual tension to the point of explosion. All of this may be quite shocking to some, but it is handled discreetly and leads you to wonder during intermission just how it will all come together in the end.

Paula naively wants everything to be perfect and the family to be together again in perfect harmony, which was never the case and you know is not going to happen. Ralph, who wants to be called The Colonel, wants order. Conflict begins from the moment he walks in the door.

Their lifelong maid (Barbara Meek) provides some comic relief as she reacts to the family members, trying fruitlessly to do for them what they are incapable of doing for themselves…and eventually paying the price.

At times, the characters step forward and deliver a brief monologue to the audience. At first, I found it a bit distracting, but then I came up with my own interpretation. Were they talking to the audience, or were they looking out the window of their posh living quarters at the world going on below them.

The title of the play is taken from a thick asparagus-type grass being studied for a school project by Teddie. It is an analogy for a grass that grows into a tough plant where animals seek shelter from predators.

“Sparrow Grass” is a tough play, raising questions about the meaning of love, the possibilities for change, relationships among family members, and questions about just what is a family.

There are strong performances by every cast member. I am always impressed by the way that McEleney blends his conservatory students with his veteran actors to form a cohesive unit.

In order for a play to succeed, the director must have the insight to find the right actor for every part. Donelly is perfect as the stoic military man whose weaknesses bring him down, while Kay shows that outward strength that is inwardly tearing her apart. Rosenstein shows strength and weakness, while Weaks brings out the anger and hatred felt toward his father. Put them all together and you have one tension-filled ensemble performance that will have you leave the theatre exhausted, but knowing that you have seen one heck of a play.

“Sparrow Grass” will be performed in repertory through May 13. Check dates and prices online at www.trinityrep.com or call 351-4242.


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