by Polly Stenham
Directed by Kelly Thornton
Featuring Nigel Bennett and Sonja Smits
Through November 21 at the Berkeley Theatre (Downstairs)

Reviewed by Robin Breon

This fall has been a season of anniversaries and dramatic familial dysfunction in Toronto. Factory Theatre is celebrating its 40th anniversary season, opening last month with Brad Fraser's play, True Love Lies (see my review in the Toronto index of Aisle Say), which asks (in a funny way) if true love lays with the protagonist's gay lover of twenty years ago or his hetero family of today.

Now Nightwood Theatre kicks off their 30th anniversary season with Polly Stenham's take on the "it's all coming apart at the seams" genre with her play, That Face, which premiered two years ago to mixed reviews at the Royal Court Theatre in London and now has its North American debut in Toronto (it will open in New York this spring at the Manhattan Theatre Club).

Although Polly Stenham's play is weak in its dramatic construction, this might be a pardonable sin in that she was only 19 years old when she wrote it. The emotional power of the piece, with its hyper-petulant youthful voice, is just the kind of thing the Royal Court Theatre likes to "discover" and so it enjoyed a high profile opening and a profitable run. Its dysfunctional debt to earlier works such as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is readily acknowledged by the playwright who even named the lead character Martha. That Face also recalls Lanford Wilson's early (1964) play, Home Free.

Sonja Smits as the cross-addicted mother who likes to down valium with vodka, does a fine turn here in a role that generally goes against type for her. We've become accustomed to seeing Ms. Smits as the strong matriarch, lawyer, corporate CEO, etc, in both television and stage work, and so it is a delight to be reminded of the stretch that this talented actor is capable of. She is engaged in a vulnerable, emotionally dependant relationship with her son, Henry (Kristopher Turner), that stops just short of incest. This is actually an unfortunate dramatic choice the playwright made because it titillates rather than confronts, which would have been a far more satisfying way to build toward some sort of dramatic climax for the characters in the play.

Henry's sister, Mia (played by Bethany Jillard) sets the stage for all of these emotionally tortuous proceedings by engaging in a bit of real torture herself in the play's opening scene. Although couched in the form of a boarding school hazing prank with an S&M overtone, the scene is essentially popular culture's way of saying, "let's play torture—it'll be fun." We're watching the normalization of torture from the horrific and unacceptable to the prosaic and mundane. Jillard's emotionally unhinged and at the same time unfazed reaction to the possible death of her "prisoner" is a delicate but well acted balancing act.

The play demands much of its principal characters: Hugh (the absentee father, played by Nigel Bennett, who must try to resolve the whole mess), Martha, Henry and Mia. Kelly Thornton's smooth, linear directing and sensitive emotional bridging (aided with a functional set designed by Teresa Przbylski) obviously provided a safe space for the actors to grapple with this huge psychological arc that they must journey for a challenging 105 minutes every night. Ultimately, much of the success of this production is due to Thornton's skilled, even handed work.

Return to Home Page