That Face: That’s Incredible.

sonja smits and kristopher turner
Sometimes you are lucky enough to see a production that stirs something fierce inside you and that is how I felt after seeing Nightwood Theatre’s production of Polly Stenham’s play That Face, a co-production with the Canadian Stage Company, playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre until November 21st, 2009.
This is an incredible play. It was written when Stenham was only nineteen years old and debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London in April 2007. It tells the story of a family entrenched in dysfunction and drowning under the strains of alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, pain, guilt and despair. What is especially striking about this play is that through all the anger and all the cruelty that is exhibited by each of the characters, there is also a strong sense of love and a desperate need to cling to the hope of achieving a healthier living situation. It is in that familial love that this play rises from being an angst-ridden clusterfuck to being a heartbreaking example of how sometimes we can cling so fiercely to those we love while simultaneously clawing them to pieces.
Stenham’s writing is certainly fresh and especially sharp, but her perspective and insight into the world and the characters she has created is sophisticated and smart. She has created three brilliant three-dimensional teenaged characters that never slip into stereotypes or sound hokey or contrived, and she fills her two adult characters with the same integrity and detail. Stenham is telling a dark story, but knows how to inject humor into even the most grisly of situations and she has taken a subject matter that has spawned a lot of plays and, with creativity and proficiency, has created a magnificently gripping and haunting play.
As Kelly Thornton writes in her “Notes from the Director,” “That Face is an actor’s play… [where] actors have to go to really risky places” and indeed Thornton is lucky to be working with some of the most extraordinary and compelling performers in this country. Nigel Bennett plays Hugh, a man who abandoned his wife and children to begin a new life with a new family in Hong Kong. Bennett’s Hugh arrives under the guise of the calm, rational patriarch promising resolutions and solutions to his children’s problems. Too guilty to play the hero, Stenham wisely does not allow Hugh to become the villain either. Instead, he and his wife Martha attempt to lure the children from one side of the fence to the other in a quest for power, for love, for loyalty to relinquish guilt and to reestablish some sort of familial order. Bennett is fantastic at expressing each of these, yet rooting Hugh firmly in his role as a father, who ultimately loves and has concern for his children. Athena Karkanis gives a fantastically disturbing performance as Izzy, a teenager who attends school with Hugh’s daughter and whose cruelty and quest for power launch the action of the play. Karkanis does not elicit much sympathy for Izzy, yet it becomes clear that she is a young girl using everything she has, her age, her sexuality, and her persuasive and dominant personality, to attract the attention that she craves with unnatural desperation.
Sonja Smits gives an incredible performance as Martha, Hugh’s ex wife who is utterly dependent on alcoholic binges and prescription pills. The relationship that Smits creates between Martha and her son Henry is one of the most disconcerting elements of the play. The way that she looked at him and touched him was so powerful that I found myself feeling distinct anxiety for Henry as her sexually misguided character continued to probe the boundaries deemed acceptable in relations between mothers and their sons. Smits is also brilliant in her physicality of drunken Martha and perfects the specific vocal timbre of someone so intoxicated, as well as her irrational mood swings and unexpected changes in motivation. I think Bethany Jillard may be the best actor in town at playing severely dysfunctional teenagers, and she gives an incredible performance in this play as Mia, Hugh and Martha’s daughter, whose indifference to the emotions of those around her, combined with her willingness to inflict pain on those she perceives to be weaker than her, are both horrifying and tragic. Jillard packs so much humanity into Mia, along with an intense love and admiration for her brother, Henry, that it is impossible for her to simply be seen as the villain. Jillard, with perfect realism, matches Mia’s indifference to all the anguish and fear she hides behind her eyes. It is mesmerizing to watch.
Incredibly, with so much talent on the Berkeley Street stage, this play’s power comes primarily from Kristopher Turner’s Henry, who buckles and breaks under the stress of having fought to take care of Martha for five years without any support from his father. Turner is exceptional in this emotionally demanding role, and he commits himself with every ounce of gusto to every gripping moment of the play. From the way that he sometimes reacts in laughter when his situation becomes so absurd it seems surreal, to the innocent coaxing of his mother, while wearing a cocktail dress, to put down the bottle and go with him to a clinic which is filled with all the naïve, determined, unwavering love of an eighteen year old boy. His final breakdown at the end of the play was one of the most intense moments I have ever witnessed in a theatre, and one of the few times that I almost immediately filled with awe for how incredibly brave this young performer was to share such a sensitive and vulnerable moment with his audience.
Disturbing, fascinating, entirely enthralling, That Face is what the theatre is all about.
That Face plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) until November 21st. To book tickets you can call the box office at 416.368.3110 or you can visit the Nightwood website or the Canadian Stage Company’s website.

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