Theater

Three by Three at Trinity

New plays explore the state of the American family

Molly Lederer
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Phyllis Kay (left) stars in Sparrow Grass, part of Trinity's Three by Three in Rep Photo by Mark Turek

This spring, Trinity Repertory Company returns to the roots of its name by presenting a trio of rotating world premieres. These three new works were introduced in the early stages of development at a group workshop several years back. With strong interest in all, artistic director Curt Columbus and his team had trouble selecting just one for the season. So they decided to take a chance, expanding all three into full-length, full-scale productions to be presented in repertory – a first for Trinity, in spite of the troupe’s name.

Columbus suspects that Three by Three in Rep is a first for the American stage as well, since most of the cast members appear in two of the three shows. Because each play is its own distinct work, audience members can see them in any order. And all three can be seen in the course of a weekend, though there is no marathon day of all in a row; as Columbus jokingly points out, no one wants to sit still for that long these days. Nevertheless, seeing the full trio gives new perspective to each. Columbus notes that they “are in conversation with each other. There is a dialogue about who we are and the state of the American family.”

Trinity’s playwright-in-residence Deborah Salem Smith contributes Love Alone. Like her previously staged works – Boots on the Ground and Some Things Are Private – Smith’s new play deals sensitively with a serious subject. It explores the aftermath of a woman’s death on the operating table during a routine procedure. It follows the woman’s widowed partner, her daughter, and the young doctor who attended to her. It touches on gay rights, the limits of medicine, and a flawed health care system. But in Smith’s hands, such hot-button issues never feel ripped from the headlines. “She approaches it very lyrically and poetically and beautifully,” Columbus explains. “It’s ultimately about how we grieve, how we let go, and how we move on.”

George Brant pens The Mourners’ Bench, about a haunting family tragedy. In the first act, two adult siblings struggle to come to terms with the dreadful way they lost their parents years ago. In the second act, which takes place 30 years prior, their aunts grapple with the immediate loss. In the third act, the new inhabitants of the house try to make peace with the horror that happened there. Columbus insists that it’s not as dark as it sounds, but powerful, moving and surprisingly funny. He reveals, “It’s really about home: where home is located, how we make home, how we keep family secrets, and how those family secrets poison us and empower us.”

Columbus himself scripts Sparrow Grass, about a blended family with steamy secrets that erupt after the father’s return from war. Loosely inspired by Racine’s Classical play Phè€dre (and reworked with Trinity Rep actor Phyllis Kay in mind for the lead), Columbus describes the play as “savage and sexual and meant to be epic.” He expects it to raise questions like, “In a world where nothing is taboo, what is still taboo? How do we use sex as a way to focus on something that is not love? What does it mean if the words mother and son and father and daughter are used, but if the real blood connections aren’t there? What’s permissible and what’s not?”

All three plays continue to develop through the rehearsal process, which adds excitement. Different directors take the helm for each, while their shared use of Trinity’s Dowling Theatre – where there is no wing space, fly space or backstage space – presents an interesting challenge for innovative set designer Michael McGarty. For his part, Columbus can’t wait to hear audiences’ reactions to the trio. He notes, “It’s a real gift to have a community that supports new work.”

Three by Three in Rep:
Sparrow Grass (now through May 13)
Love Alone (Feb. 28-May 27)
The Mourners’ Bench (March 7-May 24)