Deborah Salem Smith
Trinity Repertory Company

 

Love Alone Reviews

 

 

 

On Stage, the Repercussions of a Medical Mistake

By PAULINE W. CHEN, M.D. — DOCTOR AND PATIENT

NEW YORK TIMES

May 24, 2012

Few plays or movies capture the complex emotional and professional aftermath of a medical error. So often, the characterizations and story lines are as facile as a cartoon, with careless and negligent doctors, irrational and vengeful patients and families, and soulless, ambulance-chasing lawyers.

Love Alone, a new play about a devastating medical mistake and its consequences at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., breaks this mold.

Written by Deborah Salem Smith, Trinity's current playwright-in-residence, and directed by Ms. Smith and Tyler Dobrowsky, the company's associate artistic director, the lucid, deeply nuanced and fearless work pulls no punches as it lays bare the emotions of two families — the patient's and the doctor's — in the wake of an unexpected death during routine surgery. More than once, I sneaked a peek at other audience members to see if they noticed the tears rolling down my cheeks, only to find that many of them were crying silently, too.

The play opens with Dr. Becca Neal (Angela Brazil), a newly minted anesthesiologist, delivering the news of 48-year-old Susan's death after a routine operation to Helen (Anne Scurria), her partner of 20 years, and their young adult daughter, Clementine (Leah Anderson). Helen's initial reaction is denial – on arriving back home, she smiles and reminisces sweetly — a response that feels safe and even comforting at first.

But cracks in Helen's brave veneer soon appear. When she tries to honor her partner's memory by baking cupcakes, as Susan used to do, Helen misreads the directions on the well-worn, oil-stained recipe card and pours in salt instead of sugar. And she refuses to unpack, or even move, the white plastic "Personal Belongings" bag from the hospital that contains all that her partner wore or carried with her that fateful morning. For the entire play, the bag remains on the table where Helen sets it that first day, a looming reminder of loss.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of grief is Clementine, who is quick to anger and spews four-letter words. When she discovers that pages are missing from her mother's intraoperative report and suspects the hospital has been withholding information, she asks a lawyer for help. But when he uncovers what looks like a medical mistake, Clementine wants to do nothing further. She is satisfied with simply knowing and is ready to forgive.

Not so for Helen. It is nearly halfway through the play when, for the first time, we see Helen's face pinched in pain and her torso bowed over. She lets out a soul-wrenching howl of grief, then decides to sue.

But as the play so effectively reveals, the patient's family members are not the only ones who are victims of medical errors. Emotionally shaken, Dr. Neal becomes preoccupied with her possible culpability in her patient's death and with preserving her professional reputation. Once billed as a rising star, she now works overtime to compensate but is haunted by the endless loop of memory, the mental tape of the last moments of her patient's life. Under these enormous pressures, her relationship with her ever-patient husband, J.P. (Alexander Platt), begins to disintegrate. When she learns that the patient's family might sue, she becomes even more distracted, obsessing over every detail of the case and covering her living room couch, a piece of furniture she and J.P. had bought to celebrate a new chapter in their life together, with piles of medical records.

There are light moments that punctuate the sturm und drang, thanks mostly to an uber-realistic character, a tough older nurse (Janice Duclos) who knows more about what is going on in the hospital than most of the doctors combined. Appearing sporadically throughout the play, she becomes the one-person Greek chorus who offers droll, yet slightly enigmatic one-liners, insight that pierces through the denial, anger, bargaining and depression.

If there is one false note in this jewel of a work, it is the scene in which Clementine confronts Dr. Neal in the hospital parking lot. Leery at first, both women eventually confess their errors to each other, recounting how they might have been a better daughter or doctor to Susan if only they had paid more attention or been more loving while she was still alive. As moving as that exchange is, it's hard to imagine such an open and potentially healing discussion ever happening at most hospitals, or at least not without the presence of at least one representative from risk management.

But maybe being realistic is not always relevant. Maybe there are moments when art is meant not to imitate life, but to inspire it.

The day after I saw "Love Alone," I ran into a gentleman in his late 70s, shuffling down the hall in one of the hospitals where I work. Dressed in a brown overcoat and cap, he appeared lost. And sad. His eyes seemed teary, and he was, I could see, clutching a white plastic "Personal Belongings" bag.

I caught my breath, then walked over to the man and asked if he needed help. He raised his eyebrows in surprise and adjusted his glasses to take a better look at who I might be.

"No, I'm fine, doctor," he finally said. He looked down at his bag for a moment, hugged it closer to his chest, then added, "I think I can find my way."

Malpractice at the heart of Trinity's 'Love Alone'

The two-act drama shows the effects on everyone involved, including the doctor

By CHANNING GRAY — JOURNAL ARTS WRITER

THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

March 16, 2012

"Love Alone," the last of three new plays to open in repertory at Trinity Rep, wastes no time cutting to the chase. In the opening moments of this two-act drama, Anne Scurria's Helen shows up in a hospital waiting room to inquire about her lesbian partner of 20 years, and finds that a routine procedure has gone horribly wrong. Her 48-year-old lover, Susan, is dead.

And for the next couple of hours we watch the fallout from that tragedy, the way it affects the lives of Helen and teenage daughter, Clementine, as well as the young female doctor who carried out the operation and her husband. Clementine ends up suing Dr. Neal, who has been on the job just weeks.

But this is no good-guy-bad-guy scenario. It is more about gray areas, where blame is not so easily assigned, even though Dr. Neal admits to being rushed and taking an incomplete history, and the doctor in charge has a history of malpractice suits.

Smith tells a balanced tale that looks at both sides of the issue, and she does so with subtlety and well-crafted dialogue.

Smith, Trinity's resident playwright, has produced two other plays for the theater in recent years, "Boots on the Ground," the docudrama based on interviews with Rhode Islanders who served in the Iraq war, and "Some Things Are Private." But "Love Alone" is the most ambitious, the most cogent of the set, showing a real maturity. Smith is also directing the show, along with Trinity's associate artistic director Tyler Dobrowsky.

Angela Brazil plays the young surgeon, Dr. Neal, and Mauro Hantman is her husband. It has been five years since their wedding and they still have not unwrapped their presents, which are stored in the basement. Sitting home on the sofa, Brazil announces she had a "bad outcome" that day, but doesn't seem that concerned about it.

At the same time, we see Helen and daughter Clementine in the background on the same stage. Helen has brought home a plastic shopping bag containing her partner's belongings but can't bear to open it, even when the alarm clock periodically goes off.

It is Clementine, played by Leah Anderson, who files suit, because Helen as a lesbian partner has no legal standing. And the toll that takes on Brazil and Hantman is considerable, as they lose their cool one night when he confronts her about spending all her time at the hospital working in the OR and defending herself.

And there is the grief that Clementine and Helen share. At one point, Clementine even confronts Dr. Neal in person, who insists she is a good doctor.

Smith has struck upon a timely topic, what with medical malpractice suits becoming epidemic. But she has handled it was gentleness seen through the lives of believable, well-drawn characters.

Janice Duclos does a nice job as the officious nurse, offering Helen suggestions about cemeteries and crematoriums in the moments after her partner's death. And Richard Donelly is terrific as Mr. Rush, the attorney who delivers a blistering interrogation of Brazil.

Interestingly, all three plays in this series — Curt Columbus' "Sparrow Grass," George Brant's "The Mourner's Bench," and now "Love Alone" — are fairly straightforward, even conservative efforts about families.

Brant's play might be the most poetic, but Smith's is pretty thought-provoking, well-written and just darn good theater. It's a play about how we grieve and how we heal.

See Love Alone with Someone You Love

By JAMIE COELHO

RHODE ISLAND MONTHLY

March 19, 2012

I confess. When I attended the sold-out opening night of Love Alone at the Trinity Repertory Theatre Company on Friday night, it was at the end of a very emotional few months. So I apologize to the man sitting to the left of me (a stranger), and to the man sitting on my right (my husband), as I balled my eyes out almost the entire time. Sometimes you need a good cry, and for me, this was just the excuse that I needed.

Love Alone, by Deborah Salem Smith, starts off with a freak tragedy; a forty-eight-year-old woman dies unexpectedly after undergoing minor surgery. Her young doctor, who is partially responsible for the devastation, must break the news to the deceased woman's significant other, Helen (Anne Scurria). The lesbian couple also has a twenty-year-old daughter, Clementine (Leah Anderson), who was birthed by the woman who passed away.

The following scenes detail the confusion, denial, sadness and anger experienced by Helen and Clementine, as they try to sort out details about how the death could have happened in the first place. The pair must determine whether or not to pursue a lawsuit. What makes it even more difficult is that the government will not even acknowledge Helen as a family member, even though she and the deceased had been a couple for twenty years, and they raised Clementine together.

The opening scenes can bring back tough memories for anyone who has experienced an untimely death in their family. For me, it was my aunt who recently passed from cancer at age sixty-two. I hadn't really let it sink in, because it was so sudden, but watching these characters come to grips with reality made my own grief real. In terms of my own family, watching the actors as they mourned was like witnessing what my uncle and cousins are now going through.

It was the actresses' realistic sorrow that did it for me. Helen and Clementine were superbly played. Helen is more or less in denial. Her habits show that she is not yet ready to acknowledge the death. Emotions are subdued; plastered over with a smile, and baked into the middle of a botched batch of cupcakes. Clementine's fiery anger is refreshing. She doesn't hold back her frustrations, but is surprisingly forgiving when she gets the chance to see the situation from another person's point of view. As a member of the audience, I related to what they were going through. It is real. It is intimate. It is unfortunate.

Another great quality about the play is that even as you are reeling from one moving scene, seconds later in the following scene, you'll be smiling. I bit back the tears with laughter. The motherly nurse, played by Janice Duclos, delivers the funniest one-liners in the play, which helps the audience recover from the more emotional parts.

I also related to the role played by the doctor Becca Neil (Angela Brazil). I feel for her because she had just finished medical school and her career is just kicking off when she is faced with this medical disaster. Instead of developing her skills, and transitioning her four-year marriage into family planning mode, she is forced to focus on defending her name in the lawsuit. Her marriage suffers because of it.

Brazil acts the role exceptionally well. When she is on the stand for the trial, a video camera projects a close-up view of her face onto a screen on the wall, so that audience members get an even more intimate perspective. It is almost violating to look at her that closely. Her emotions are blown-up and zoomed in, so that there's nowhere for her to hide.

The role played by Doctor Neil's husband J.P. (Mauro Hantman) is also significant. There is some role reversal going on here, as Doctor Neil is the workaholic, never making it home for dinner, while J.P. is the one who is always sitting at home waiting for her. J.P. is the one who is anticipating children in their future, while Doctor Neil is so focused on her career, she keeps avoiding family planning (and maybe isn't so sure that a family is what she wants after all). By the end of the play, she begins to see how she can change, and the audience is left hopeful that things will turn around for the likeable young couple.

The story ends with the lesson that even if you're faced with a terrible tragedy — your own life and the lives of those around you — are worth saving. This play is one of Trinity Rep's "Three by Three," for which audiences can see three different rotating plays, with many of the same actors starring in each play. For more details, go to trinityrep.com.

Love Alone

By KATHIE RALEIGH

THE WOONSOCKET
CALL REVIEW

March 22, 2012

PROVIDENCE – A medical procedure gone wrong is at the center of Deborah Salem Smith's new play, Love Alone, the third entry in Trinity Repertory Company's Three by Three in Rep, a series of three brand new plays running now through May 27.

Actually, the procedure itself has taken place just before the play begins, and what ensues is a realistic and deeply moving examination of how that event affects the patient's family and the young doctor who is involved.

Over the course of a couple hours, Salem Smith weaves multiple perspectives into a flowing fabric of a story, telling a tale of oh-so-human reactions to being cornered, stressed, angry - and bereaved. Ultimately, however, it's about coming to terms with those emotions and beginning to heal.

Things get off to an uncomfortable start as Dr. Becca Neal has to tell Helen that Susan, her lesbian partner of 20 years, has died from complications during a surgical procedure. Still reeling from the devastating news, Helen and Clementine, the couple's daughter, are corralled by an unctuous social worker offering packets of information and stock expressions of sympathy.

We then follow Helen and Clementine home where they must begin working through their grief. They consider the heartfelt, like including estranged family members in the funeral plans, and something more hard-hearted, a malpractice lawsuit.

Meanwhile, we also go home with young Dr. Neal. She and her husband of six years have weathered college and the rigors of medical school, but now Dr. Neal has new job, and they're finally on a path to settling down and starting a family.

That was the plan, but this "bad outcome" and its ramifications wreak havoc on their home life as well as Dr. Neal's professional standing.

All the characters are written with true-to-life accuracy and an empathy that encourages us to put ourselves in their shoes. The cast, co-directed with affecting understatement by Tyler Dobrowsky and the playwright, delivers on that accuracy with honest emotion.

As Helen, Anne Scurria is achingly authentic in her initial shock and bewilderment, in her anger, and in the way her grief overwhelms her. You don't just observe her feelings, you share them.

She is matched by the rest of the cast. Leah Anderson, a student in the Brown/Trinity Rep master's degree program, plays Clementine with a perfect balance between the edginess of a young person and the developing maturity of an adult.

As Dr. Neal, Angela Brazil mines a host of mental and emotional conflicts as she tries to cope with her first medical "bad outcome." Mauro Hantman is at his best as her husband, J.P., clearly in love but increasingly impatient as Becca's professional issues push their married life aside. Their shared moments of tenderness - and stress - are completely believable.

Janice Duclos makes a collection of small roles memorable, from the solicitous social worker to a no-nonsense nurse. And thanks to a well written role and a calm and collected performance by Richard Donnelly, we understand the role of a focused lawyer amid all the chaotic emotion.

The play is powerful in its subtlety. Nothing is overplayed or exaggerated, and our sympathies unexpectedly wax and wane as the characters work through their positions. Moreover, the play is carefully constructed so that events or information from an early scene play out in a later one. For example, the negative judgment we easily make about one doctor begins to look unfair when we apply the same criteria to Dr. Neal.

This play deals with a timely topic for Rhode Island where an "I'm sorry" law is being considered (one that would allow physicians to apologize without legal implications after an act of malpractice). 
Yet, it's also timeless in the way it addresses grief and healing. Take advantage of seeing the world premiere of a play that we expect will go on to be produced around the world.

Moving Tale About Dealing With Grief At Trinity

By DON FOWLER

WARWICK BEACON REVIEW

March 21, 2012


Love Alone, a moving tale about dealing with grief, by Deborah Salem Smith, Trinity's Playwright-in-Residence, is getting an outstanding production as the third new play in Trinity's "Three by Three in Rep".
The play deals with the unexpected death of a 48 year-old woman during a routine operation, and the effect it has on her daughter, lesbian partner of 20 years, anesthesiologist, and her husband.

Anne Scurria plays Helen, the grieving partner who is devastated by the "bad outcome" of the operation, as told to her by a by-the-book bereavement counselor, and left holding the bag of her partner's personal items.

Janice Duclos plays double duty as a counselor and a nurse.
 Equally distraught is their daughter, Clementine (Conservatory student Leah Anderson), who shows her pent up anger while trying to find out "What happened?"

The death also has a shocking effect on Becca, the young anesthesiologist (Angela Brazil) and her husband (Mauro Hantman). There are some very tense scenes between the two as they try to deal with her situation.

When Helen decides to sue, the situation becomes a bit complicated, bringing out a variety of feelings, anxieties, and reactions.

She hires a lawyer (Richard Donelly) who reluctantly reviews the case, eventually cross-examining the doctor in a tense scene that raises a variety of questions.

Salem Smith has written a tight script that is very balanced, raising questions of blame, while concentrating more on the effect that the death has on all involved.

Ironically, the Rhode Island legislature is currently considering the "I'm sorry" bill, where doctors can admit mistakes without fear of reprisal.

The play raises other questions, including the rights of a partner in a law suit, and the roles of the operating team.

It also deals with the pressures placed on the doctor's spouse as the doctor deals with the guilt of losing her first patient.

There are no easy answers to the many issues raised by this insightful play. It leaves the characters with a sense of regret, and after dealing with those seven stages of grief, a way of accepting and forgiving.

This all sounds a bit heavy, and it is. The author has managed to interject some humor to relieve the incredible tension that builds.

There are residual damages to every person involved, and reaching the point of acceptance and forgiveness is a difficult journey.

Salem Smith and the excellent cast are able to bring us along without being maudlin and biased, and leaving us with a feeling of closure and acceptance.

Love Alone at Trinity Is Not To Be Missed

By KIM KALUNIAN

WPRO REVIEW

March 23, 2012

It's always refreshing to see wonderful, new theater, and Trinity Repertory's Love Alone is the perfect example of just that. Although I missed the other two plays in the "Three by Three in Rep" series going on at Trinity right now, I'm so glad I saw Love Alone.

Written by Deborah Salem Smith, Trinity's playwright in residence, this drama pulls at your heartstrings in all the right ways. At the top of the show we learn that a routine surgery has gone unexpectedly wrong. In a matter of minutes, a mother and devoted partner has been yanked away from the women who love her most. We follow Helen (Anne Scurria) and Clementine (Leah Anderson) as they pick up the pieces in the wake of the tragedy. The two characters are multi-dimensional, multi-faceted women that Salem Smith has clearly painted with meticulous detail.

Scurria masterfully plays Helen, the mourning widow of her late partner of 22 years. She deals with the disbelief and sorrow that comes with losing a loved one, all the while bearing her real and raw emotions on the stage.

Brown/Trinity Consortium student Leah Anderson is commanding as Clementine. I hope to see her on the Trinity stage many more times. Her character was honest, her emotional journey thorough and clear, and her talent immense. Anderson not only showed her exceptional capabilities as an actress, but also demonstrated her skills playing the electric guitar, and sent shivers down my spine with her velvety and haunting rendition of "Landslide." According to her biography, she's also a graduate of Yale, which left me wondering, what can't this woman do?

Supporting Helen and Clementine were Repertory members Angela Brazil, Mauro Hantman, Janice Duclos and Richard Donelly. Duclos played multiple roles, all of which got under your skin. Donelly was intense as Mr. Rush, the lawyer Helen and Clementine chose to represent them in a medical malpractice suit. 
Brazil plays Becca Neil, the anesthesiologist entrapped in the middle of a medical negligence suit. Hantman plays J.P., her husband with whom she's facing marital ruin. The chemistry between the two, often paired on the Trinity stage, is believable, and makes you root for their happiness.

The script and collected performances make the play feel less like a live performance and more like a movie. I got lost in the captivating story, and forgot I was watching familiar faces. I was totally immersed in the play for the entire two and a half hours.

Tyler Dobrowsky, Trinity's Associate Artistic Director, and Salem Smith partnered to direct the compelling show. I applaud their partnership.

Love Alone is particularly timely, especially with actor James Woods publicly supporting the "Benevolent Gestures" bill, which would allow doctors to apologize (without facing legal backlash) for medical mistakes made. In Love Alone, Helen even says something to the effect of "if they don't apologize with their words, we'll make them apologize with their money." It's and effective reminder us all how important humanity and compassion are, and how quickly life can pass us by.

For a truly wonderful piece of new theater, skip the movies and head to Trinity Repertory's production of Love Alone, now through May 27.

Love Alone at Trinity Rep

By LORI SOLINGER

NBC 10 REVIEW

March 20, 2012


I must admit most of the time I have seen new works at theatres around the country: I either look for the exits or the roof.

That is not the case with the latest group of new works at Trinity Rep called THREE BY THREE IN REP.

Last week, it was The Mourner's Bench, by George Brant, this week it's Love Alone, by Deborah Salem Smith...next Sparrow Grass, by Curt Columbus.

Love Alone is a story that can happen to any of us, God forbid, concerning medical mistakes and the aftermath of grief and guilt.

The story starts in a hospital waiting room.

A 48 year old woman, Susan, dies after a routine operation…we're not sure just why she even underwent surgery…but that's not the important part.

The deceased woman has a significant other for more than twenty years, Helen; played by Anne Scurria...they also have a twenty year old daughter, Clementine....

Susan gave birth to Clementine.

A new doctor at the hospital, Dr. Neil, played by Angela Brazil, broke the news to both women.

Their loved one died due to a mistake in the operating room…we learn later just how that occurred.

The play deals with Dr. Neil's guilt and how it affects her life and that of her husband played by Mauro Hantman...they planned to start a family until this.

It also brilliantly shows the grief and shock that the death brings to Helen and Clementine...and whether that grief should take the form of a lawsuit against the hospital....or instead try as best as they can to get on with their lives with Susan's memory in their hearts.

I couldn't help but relive every time my mother and father went in for some type of surgery and there were many...if they would come out…praying in the waiting room, pacing, heart pounding out of my chest...every time a medical looking person came through those automatic doors...you just want to jump them for information, I did, even if they have nothing to do with your loved ones operation.

I saw that in Helen and Clementine...in that room. And the disbelief when they learned the horrible truth. 
Helen is played with perfection by Scurria…her grief is so large, she can't get out of her own way...she channels her energy into the lawsuit...if she can't have Susan back, she will get even...

Leah Anderson as daughter Clementine is equally strong...she is a pretty successful singer with a band...and tries to reason with the beyond grief Helen about the useless lawsuit.

Brazil and Hantman show how the whole thing nearly destroys their marriage and their individual personalities...she didn't take a complete history of Susan…that haunts her…and we later find out the surgeon she works with does have a history of malpractice suits...another haunting.

The two hour play really did fly by...it's a subject...that I pray no one has to face someday...but it does provide thought God forbid if you do.

At Trinity Rep, three new dramas get world premieres

By DON AUCOIN

BOSTON GLOBE
STAGE REVIEW

April 6, 2012

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-quite­ finished 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.

'Love Alone' conversations turn on societal, medical questions

By BOB KERR

PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

April 1, 2012

Deborah Salem Smith was talking to some members of the audience after a performance of her play "Love Alone" at Trinity Rep on Tuesday night. The audience members were from Lifespan, from the risk-management department.

The conversation was part of the natural draw that Smith's play has for members of Rhode Island's medical community. "Love Alone" deals with death in the hospital and a doctor's growing self-doubt and the hard legal realities facing a woman whose lesbian partner dies during routine surgery. In other words, it moves back and forth across a good part of our legal, medical and social landscape.

Smith has been invited to make a presentation to staff at Rhode Island Hospital later this month.

"Doctors need to be able to comment on a human level," she says. "Now, doctors are isolated."

Her play is drawn from conversations and based on conversations — on the ability or the lack of it to drop the defenses and talk.

She is playwright-in-residence at Trinity, and her play is part of an innovative series of three world premiers being presented there through May 27.

It's very good, and I don't say that because my friend Richard Donelly plays the lawyer who eventually forces a doctor to confront her failures. It's so good because of the way it moves from the professional to the personal, from high-stakes legal liability to the hard choices of a marriage to the emotional wringer the dead woman's partner and daughter go through in search of the right thing to do.

Smith once was a poet. Poetry and sculpture are what she pursued at Princeton. She moved to playwriting 10 years ago in a natural kind of literary shift.

"I wrote long poems with a lot of dialogue."

Six years ago, I saw her "Boots On The Ground" and thought it was a valuable part of the conversation we really weren't having on the war in Iraq and what it was doing to us. She and Laura Kepley, with whom she worked on the project, interviewed more than 70 people who had been to Iraq or been somehow touched by it. They condensed those interviews into 22 characters played by five actors. And the actors talked of Iraq in all its anger and confusion, fear and uncertainty. They talked with the voices of Rhode Islanders. Then they talked to members of the audience. It was a good night at Trinity.

"Love Alone" goes to different territory, but, again, Smith talks to a lot of people along the way.

She came to Providence because her partner, Christine, was coming to Brown medical school. And that meant their circle of friends included doctors.

"It was eye-opening," says Smith. "Her colleagues and friends started getting named in lawsuits. We thought they were good doctors."

Add to that the fact that Christine's father is a lawyer who devotes about a quarter of his time to medical malpractice, and the outlines of a play emerge.

"I interviewed a lot of doctors," says Smith.

So doctors come to the play, and nurses and people from risk management. And probably lawyers.

It begins with a young, confident anesthesiologist telling the partner of a woman who has just undergone routine surgery that the patient has died. It is, says the doctor, her first "bad outcome."

The death takes its toll on the partner, the dead woman's daughter, the doctor and her husband. It raises all kinds of questions about access to information, about how it sometimes takes a lawyer to pull the truth from the medical bob and weave.

"Families expect to know how a loved one dies," says Smith. "When the hospitals shut down information, there is trouble."

Enter the lawyer. First, he tells the dead woman's partner that she has no legal standing to sue. The woman's daughter must do it.

Then the lawyer questions the doctor, who sits with her back to the audience. Her face is shown on a screen at the back of the stage. And we see her come apart. We see her forced to admit that she made mistakes, that she didn't ask the patient enough questions.

"Love Alone," like "Boots On The Ground," reflects the times we're in and the tangle of public emotion. Should doctors be allowed to say "I'm sorry"? Should gay and lesbian partners be given greater legal rights when a partner dies?

After the play, there's a discussion. It's another good night at Trinity.