Trinity Rep’s dysfunctional Sparrow Grass

Emotional wreckage
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  March 7, 2012


In "Three by Three in Rep," Trinity Repertory Company is taking on an especially ambitious project, cycling three world premieres in a demonstration of the juggling act that used to be common in this country and still is in Europe. Trinity Rep is the last regional theater in America to still do so with a resident company.

Sparrow Grass, written by the company's artistic director, Curt Columbus, commissioned by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, kicked off the trilogy. Directed by Trinity veteran Brian McEleney, it's being staged through May 13.

The intense drama is about a family so dysfunctional as to be pathological, brought to multiple crises by the arrival of a prodigal, and rather priapic, son. The play was inspired by Racine's Phèdre, based on the Greek myth about a woman who develops an all-consuming passion for her stepson while her husband remains at war.

In the Trinity rendition, the ante is upped. Where the lust, and focus of concern, is with the lonely warrior's wife in the original tale and adaptations, here the passion is widely distributed, with the danger of diluting rather than intensifying the significance. The story starts with starched-back Paula (Phyllis Kay) in a sustained fit of perfectionism as she has the house prepared for her husband's homecoming after a three-year absence (there's no mention of why he hasn't occasionally returned on leave). Complementing that tense energy, the play opens with her poetic thoughts: "Your love burns in the pit of my stomach," she says, feeling "the wound you leave inside me." Such non-naturalistic expressions of implicit attitudes occasionally pop up in the play, intruding when they're not walled off as preludes.

The returning colonel is Ralph (Richard Donelly), who retired from the Army and returned to the war zone as a civilian contractor because the pay was better. We know he is not a model of interpersonal communication skills when, rather than phone, he sends a telegram to his wife to let her know he is coming home and sends a text message to daughter Teddie (Jaime Rosenstein).

The other man Paula and Teddie have to contend with is Nate (Tyler Lansing Weaks), who was thrown out years before by his father. To describe Nate as disruptive would be like saying a hand grenade tossed into a house causes damage. He is cataclysmic.

We see that Nate means trouble when, taking his clothes off for the maid to wash them, he stands posing like a juvenile delinquent Greek god in his jockey shorts as the two women nervously look on. His quasi-incestuous relationship with his stepmother is ready to re-ignite, and we fear for his teenaged stepsister as well.

Teddie has also felt abandoned by her father too; when that is combined with adoring her brother, we know she's ripe for the picking. Brown/Trinity Rep student Rosenstein makes her character quite a breath of freshness in this dour tale, so I hope we see more of her.

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Related: Trinity's rollicking Absurd Person Singular, Present laughter, Dynamic duo, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Brian McEleney, Trinity Rep,  More more >
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