BWW Reviews: SPARK Shows Promise at Theater Alliance

BWW Reviews: SPARK Shows Promise at Theater Alliance

Theater Alliance starts its 2014-2015 season at the cozy Anacostia Playhouse off with the world premiere production of Obie Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich's Spark. While I commend the small but mighty company for taking a chance on a new work and found sparks of light within the script and the production itself, there's definitely some room for improvement in both areas. It doesn't ignite, but it doesn't fizzle either.

Perhaps in our city especially, there's no shortage of plays being offered - particularly within the last decade or so - that consider the challenges of veteran reintegration post-service in the theater of operations du jour. Svich's work follows this well-worn template, but with several interesting twists that I found largely compelling. Instead of a story about a husband returning home to his wife (or vice-versa) or a child returning home to a parent (or vice-versa), we have a story about a young girl returning home to a life with her sisters.

As Evelyn Gilmord (Sarah Kathryn Strasser) her younger, spunky sister Ali (recent area university graduate Alison Donnelly), and family friend Hector (Carlos Saldaña) await the return of the other Gilmord sister, Lexie (Anna Lathrop), from her military service at their worn-down homestead (meticulously designed by Deborah Wheatley) in the Carolinas, it's immediately clear that the sisters are at odds with one another and probably have been for some time. Evelyn, since the death of their mother, has assumed the role of matriarch for the family and intends on keeping everything afloat even in the face of hardship (both financial and otherwise), preferring control over chaos. Her need for control has tremendous implications for the interplay between all three sisters.

With the return of Lexie, a volatile display of a struggle for power ignites on the small land mass they inhabit, which brings to the forefront conversations of the past, notions of expectation and responsibility in a non-traditional familial environment, class distinctions in the South, and how the girls' world has been shaped by their now deceased mother and - especially for Lexie - their soldier father who abandoned them when they were very young. As we witness the sisters' search for the way forward in their individual and collective lives, the play also sheds light on the unique circumstances Lexie faces as a vet returning home to a world that might not be a conflict zone in a traditional sense, but far from neat, tidy, and easy. The past haunts and it's going to take work to come to terms with it. Ideas about how to move on - at least for Lexie - may come from an unexpected source.

As directed by Colin Hovde (assisted by Katie Ryan), the tensions between all the players simmer under the surface in a way that's volatile, but not necessarily explosive in the physical sense. Subtlety is the name of the game here. While these choices do give the audience a mechanism for focusing more on the interpersonal relationships of all involved and the deep catalysts for their actions rather than those actions in and of themselves, they do not necessarily add up to create uniformly interesting and engaging evening in the theatre. While there are elements of Svich's script that are extremely thought-provoking (one example being the relationship between Lexie and Evelyn and how conflict-related experiences have shaped them at this point in time), other elements drag on and seem to exist only to extend the running time to over two hours.

The worst offense in this case is the entry of a mysterious character Vaughn (an underwhelming and somewhat stiff Addison Switzer) in the second act. Although this character is crucial to determining the course the story will take - particularly as it pertains to Lexie, her future, and her relationship with her sisters - the scene is very long, awkwardly written, and demonstrates only a modicum of understanding (at least to my mind) of the issues veterans face. In essence, it takes cue from a Lifetime move and extends it as far as humanly possible.

An improved focus in the script - more closely weaving the "resolution of Lexie, the returned soldier, predicament" within the larger narrative of the sisters' relationships - would be very much desirable. Is this is a story about the challenges of vet reintegration as portrayed at a micro level or broader family relations amidst challenging circumstances? Certainly, the script has both elements in it, but as is written right now, we have an "everything but the kitchen sink" kind of situation. The kinds of challenges all involved face run the gamut and because they're only touched upon lightly - at least in most cases - none get the treatment they deserve. Overall, the pieces of the story are there, but they just need to be tightened.

For whatever quibbles I have with the direction and the script, I have far fewer with the acting choices from our main players. Strasser, Donnelly and Lathrop are very believable in their respective roles and give multi-dimensional performances that demonstrate a solid understanding of their characters' identities and why they might behave like they do. Strasser's controlled performance is well-suited to portraying Evelyn, while Donnelly's confidence and wit is a good fit for portraying Ali. As Lexie, Lathrop probably has the most challenging role of all of the actresses. She must not to fall into the trap of portraying a returned vet in a superficial, template-like kind of way. After all, there are so many examples in television and in the theatre to model such a performance after. One can always see the inner tension and pain bubbling below the surface as Lathrop is onstage, but those choices do not overwhelm her performance. It's nuanced, which is nice to see for such a young actress.

Likewise, the tension-filled chemistry between all three ladies is a key ingredient to making the production work as well as it does. At times the environmental soundscape (Thomas Sowers) makes it challenging to focus on the dialogue the ladies are delivering, but even in the midst of the noise, the way the believable relationship informs their behavior is never lost.

Running Time: Nearly two hours, including one intermission.

Spark runs at the Anacostia Playhouse - 2020 Shannon Place, SE in Washington, DC - through September 28, 2014. For tickets and show schedules, consult the Theater Alliance website.

Photo Credit: C. Stanley Photography (L-R: Alison Donnelly, Anna Lathrop, and Sarah Kathryn Strasser)

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