PROVIDENCE — It was just a couple of minutes before the start of a midweek matinee performance in Trinity Repertory Company’s Dowling Theater, and the woman to my left had a seemingly odd question for her companion: “Which one are we seeing?’’
As it happened, the drama she was about to watch was Deborah Salem Smith’s “Love Alone.’’ But under the circumstances, the woman’s confusion was understandable. How often does a regional theater ask its audience to digest three new plays at once, none of them by famous playwrights?
Very seldom. But that’s what is happening at Trinity Rep.
In an audacious roll of the dice, the venerable company is staging simultaneous world premieres of three dark, wrenching dramas that revolve around families shattered by unexpected events and trying to navigate their way through the rubble.
Dubbed “Three by Three in Rep,’’ the initiative features a trio of works written for and developed by Trinity Rep, performed in repertory by members of the resident acting company, and featuring sets, costumes, and sound by resident designers.
In addition to “Love Alone,’’ by Trinity Rep playwright-in-residence Smith, the initiative includes “The Mourners’ Bench,’’ by George Brant, and “Sparrow Grass,’’ by Curt Columbus, the company’s artistic director.
By my reckoning, “Sparrow Grass’’ is a misfire, but a daring one. “Love Alone’’ and “The Mourners’ Bench’’ are first-rate: small but gleaming gems.
Another question: How many theater companies would commit to a three-month run for three unknown works? Answer: Very few. But that, too, is part of Trinity Rep’s experiment.
Granted, the dramas are being performed on the smaller of the company’s two stages. The Dowling Theater seats 280 compared with 522 in the Chace Theater, where “The Merchant of Venice’’ recently wrapped up a five-week run and “Boeing-Boeing,’’ an old-fashioned farce, starts April 13.
Nonetheless, “Three by Three in Rep” is the sort of experiment that might succeed only if attempted by a company that has assiduously cultivated its subscriber base and surrounding community. (Boston theaters, take note.) Moreover, the initiative serves as a reminder of Trinity Rep’s increasingly rare status as a regional theater with a resident acting troupe. The plays showcase such company stalwarts as Angela Brazil, Anne Scurria, Mauro Hantman, Janice Duclos, and Phyllis Kay, each of whom shoulders roles in two of the three plays.
“Three by Three in Rep” also challenges the belief that Trinity Rep has inclined toward safe, middlebrow fare under the leadership of Columbus, who took over in 2006.
It’s not a view I share, for what it’s worth. Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park,’’ last fall, was just one of numerous challenging, well-acted productions I’ve seen at Trinity Rep. Yes, the theater pulled that wheezy old warhorse “Camelot’’ out of mothballs in 2010, but Columbus, who directed, freshly reimagined the musical as a play within a play staged by war-weary Londoners who have taken refuge in a tube station during the Blitz. Yes, the company produced “His Girl Friday’’ this season, but Columbus, again directing, used a newly revised script by the great John Guare, who gave the piece a sharp political edge.
Even before “Three by Three in Rep,” Columbus had followed through on his vow to develop new work at Trinity. Last season, as part of a program he launched to encourage new plays by members of the resident company, Trinity Rep premiered “The Completely Fictional — Utterly True — Final Strange Tale of Edgar Allan Poe,’’ a flawed but ambitious imagining of Poe’s dying days that was written by resident actor Stephen Thorne, and also directed by Columbus.
Columbus’s playwriting contribution to “Three by Three in Rep” is “Sparrow Grass.’’ In the play, inspired by Racine’s 17th-century drama “Phèdre,’’ a family homecoming turns into a battleground. With a combination of eagerness and trepidation, the high-strung Paula (Kay) is awaiting the return, after years away, of her husband, Ralph (Richard Donelly), a onetime officer turned private military contractor, whom she calls “the Colonel.’’ Waiting with her, and markedly less enthusiastic about the Colonel’s imminent arrival, are Paula’s teenage daughter from an earlier marriage, Teddie (Jaime Rosenstein), and the family servant, Isabelle (Barbara Meek).
But someone else strolls through the front door before the Colonel gets there: his son, Paula’s stepson, a handsome, amoral hustler named Nate (Tyler Lansing Weaks). It turns out that Nate has a significant history with the woman he tauntingly calls “Mama Bear,’’ and he might be looking to write a new chapter involving her and/or Teddie. His larger goal might be to destroy the Colonel.
The erotic combat and verbal showdowns of “Sparrow Grass’’ generate sparks, and Kay is quite effective as a woman whose desires conflict with her yearning for propriety and stability. But the play ultimately succumbs to lurid, soap-opera excess.
By contrast, Smith’s “Love Alone’’ and Brant’s “The Mourners’ Bench’’ walk a disciplined tightrope as they explore the complicated, never-quitefinished ways we process loss.
The galvanizing event of “Love Alone’’ takes place before the play begins: a routine surgery that ends in the death of a woman named Susan. The drama examines the impact of that death through a double lens, as guilt-stricken questions and conflict consume two households.
The first one is occupied by Helen (Scurria), Susan’s longtime partner, and their daughter, an aspiring rock singer and guitarist named Clementine (Leah Anderson, a student in the Brown University/Trinity Rep graduate acting program). The second one contains Becca (Brazil), the anesthesiologist who may have made mistakes before and after the surgery that doomed Susan, and Becca’s increasingly estranged husband, J.P. (Hantman).
Helen can’t quite bring herself to open the knotted bag of her beloved’s belongings, which she carried home from the hospital, and she can’t stop herself from agonizingly replaying Susan’s final moments. Neither can Becca, first for professional reasons — she needs to defend herself in a lawsuit Helen and Clementine have filed against her and the possibly incompetent surgeon — and then for reasons that become deeply personal.
Brant’s “The Mourners’ Bench’’ shifts backward and forward in time over three short acts, presenting different groups of characters whose lives were changed, directly or indirectly, by a terrible event.
The play begins in the present, when a woman named Melissa (Brazil) confronts her brother Bobby (Hantman) in their childhood home, which Bobby, to her astonishment, has just purchased. He has made an alcohol-soaked mess of his life; she, seemingly, has not.
In exchanges whose stakes and emotional intensity steadily escalate, the siblings revisit the past and measure its cost. The most prominent feature of the home is a piano, and when Melissa is at last able to sit down at it and play “Prece,’’ by Brazilian composer Alberto Nepomuceno, the tune and the effect are haunting.
That same melancholy song will be played on that piano in Act 2, decades earlier, after Bobby and Melissa’s aunts (played by Kay and Duclos) have traversed some painful and revealing emotional terrain. And its notes will be heard again in Act 3, as Joe (Timothy Crowe) and Sarah (Scurria), an older couple who were never able to have children, size up Bobby and Melissa’s former house, now theirs.
Joe watches and listens as the terminally ill Sarah carefully picks out the chords on the piano. One other figure — unseen by us but heartbreakingly visible to Sarah — is also watching and listening, unable to move on.
Play by: Curt Columbus
Directed by Brian McEleney
Through May 13
THE MOURNERS’ BENCH
Play by: George Brant
Through May 24
Deborah Salem Smith
Tyler Dobrowsky and Smith
Through May 27
Sets, Michael McGarty. Lights, Dan Scully. Costumes, William Lane. Sound,
Peter Sasha Hurowitz.
Trinity Repertory Company, Dowling Theater, Providence.