nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
July 28, 2008
Sympathetic Division portrays the fracturing of a family using a kaleidoscopic approach to narrative. Our point of view is primarily through the eyes of Julie, the younger, overachieving daughter of two neuroscientists. Scenes skip around in time, showing the tensions running through the family and their eventual unleashing; these include the mother's emotional instability and struggle with prescription medications, and the effects of older daughter Charlotte's learning disability on the brainy family's expectations.
Writer Gia Marotta takes full advantage of the possibilities offered by the stage to tell the story. For example, we learn of the parents' separation through a series of bitter phone messages, while an enactment of a "what's the right school for you" quiz in a college guide cleverly show the emotional traps latent in everyday language (e.g., "Do you want to live close or near to home? What is your parents' marital status?"). Of most interest is the framing of memories through the professor father's lecture notes, with witty projected slides (by artist Matt Broach) enhancing the contrast between the didactic tone and emotional scenarios. Marotta mines the rich language of neuroscience for metaphorical ways to describe human relationships—the eponymous term "sympathetic division" itself refers to the "fight or flight" response in the brain. Equally evocative terms like "phantom limbs and phantom pain" and "affective motivational pathways" are played out through family dynamics, implicitly showing that even those with the greatest knowledge of the mind's workings are sometimes ruled by gut reactions.
Each actor gets an opportunity to showcase his or her range in the play's many dramatic moments. Ron Stetson is utterly convincing as an academic father concerned for the young minds in his care, while Robyn Frank as Charlotte is a breath of fresh air when onstage, immediately establishing a particular, easy camaraderie between sisters. It is no exaggeration to call this work a drama—I found myself wondering if the emotional impact would have been greater were there fewer scenes of the various characters shouting or crying. The more subtle moments in the script show the ways in which those who know us best understand just where it hurts—a casual comment is all a parent, child, husband, wife needs to inflict damage. The play takes on the challenge of these undercurrents early on, but by the end we have lost this sense of nuance. While the emotional climax finds a response from the audience, it seems an easy way out given the possibilities offered in the first half of the performance, both in terms of the creative approach to staging and the complexity of the characters onstage.