A play about two brothers, featuring the playwright’s own brother in the central role? When the family members in question are hot Toronto playwright Adam Pettle and his older brother, actor Jordan, the combination can produce more than fraternal quality time. In Sunday Father, the Pettle brothers’ third collaboration after surprise hit Zadie’s Shoes in 2001 and Therac 25, which Jordan directed, last May, the Pettles draw on their own family past to create a tale of sibling love and rivalry that is both touching and realistic.
Jed (Jordan Pettle) and Alan (Ari Cohen) are alike and different, friends and enemies, close in many ways and worlds apart in others. They navigate adulthood together, often reminiscing about their childhood in a Toronto Jewish family with divorced parents. When hit with two significant losses—the breakdown of Jed’s marriage to Amy (Liisa Repo-Martell) and the death of their father—the brothers must confront their past, present and future in order to discover the true value of brotherhood, fatherhood, and family ties.
The production owes much of its strength to Adam Pettle’s script, which manages to be witty and glib, deep and moving at once. Pettle’s dialogue shines; he infuses his writing with contemporary freshness while dealing with age-old themes of fraternal conflict and family dynamics. He also successfully breaks from dramatic convention—threads of childhood flashbacks, Greek mythology and Old Testament stories weave their way through the script, stitching colour into the play’s realism. The numerous Toronto references and in-jokes may make the play less accessible to audiences elsewhere, and references to The Osbournes and TSN could prove dated in several years, but these elements also provide a distinct setting and voice. The script’s one weakness is its lone female character, Amy—this is very much a male play by a male writer, and though Pettle tries hard, he never quite makes his female voice ring true.
With a cast of only three players, much of the action rests on the Pettle-Cohen duo, and neither disappoints. The older Pettle brother is stellar as the favoured sibling, Jed, and navigates the progression from idealism to greater self-knowledge without a single false note. His ability to portray contrasting emotions within a single line is extraordinary, as demonstrated in his breakdown after the death of his father. Cohen is equally brilliant as delinquent older brother Alan, and plays opposite Pettle as if they had actually spent their entire lives together. Repo-Martell’s Amy gets largely lost amidst the sibling dynamics; when she does arrive on stage, her performance is jarring and often over-the-top. She settles into character in the second act, and has a few nice moments, but overall, her performance is dull beige compared to the scarlet of Pettle and Cohen.
Mention must be made of Bretta Gerecke’s set design—a stark white rectangle divided into three “rooms,” giving the impression of staring into the window of a hip furniture store on Queen Street East. The flatness of the design did hamper blocking somewhat; movement often took place on straight horizontal lines, decreasing visual interest.
While many in the theatre community were wondering how the Pettle brothers would follow up the unexpected success of Zadie’s Shoes, they need not wait longer for an answer. With a creative, contemporary script and a wonderful cast of young actors, Sunday Father is undoubtedly another success for these rising young stars.