SPARTA by Sarah Martyn, directed by Layne Coleman (Theatre Passe Muraille). 16 Ryerson. To May 8. $10-$30. See Continuing Listings. 416-504-7529. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Set on an Ontario farm, Sparta explores a family that spends a birthday party plowing up long-hidden and recent secrets.
Big-city lawyer Mary and her younger sister Christina, a wannabe writer, return home for Christina's 25th birthday. Her parents, Marvin and Carol, the father a burnt-out farmer who's having trouble in the current political and economic climate, welcome her warmly, though her brother Alden, a failed banker who's having a go at farming, is more low-key in his greetings.
Sarah Martyn 's play fails to generate dramatic tension until the second act, where spilled secrets lead to some genuinely gripping confrontations at the birthday dinner.
Until then, related bits of family history don't really coalesce, and neither the initial setup of city versus country nor occasional mentions of the plight of farmers is successfully integrated into the drama.
Even so, there's much to admire in several of the performances. Hilary Fennell makes an expressive-faced Christina, who feels she can only write successfully about her own family, and Ryan Hollyman gives an empathetic, emotionally true base to the uncomfortable Alden. His speech about the first time he saw his baby sister is one of the play's most moving sections.
But Martyn lets the energy dissipate in the play's last moments and also fails to flesh out Marvin and Mary. Though Aviva Chernick finds some moments of humanity in Mary, Bob Collins can't bring a third dimension to the morally rigid father with a hurt, angry take on life and a desire for his kids to be more successful than he has been.
Collins's best moments are with Lorna Wilson 's gossipy Carol. Under the direction of Layne Coleman , the two make us believe in the battles, recriminations and competitions, some of them carried out by rote, between this long-married couple.
It's Wilson who is this production's heart, playing the subtext keenly and demonstrating again and again that this seemingly silly woman knows exactly where her family's pulse lies. Her jokes make us smile, but we feel the heat and bitterness of her tears when they finally flow.