In the new teen-angst movie Picture Day, which recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Susan Coyne shows up in a small part as the overly solicitous mother of a nerdy high-school freshman. It turns out that was just prep work for her latest stage role.
Between the Sheets, the short, sharp new play kicking off Nightwood Theatre's season, has Coyne playing the fierce mom of a special-needs kid who treats a parent-teacher interview as if it were the Spanish Inquisition.
Only, as we quickly discover in Jordi Mand's surprise-packed drama, Coyne's Marion hasn't really come to the school to grill her son's Grade 3 teacher about his grades. She's there to accuse the young woman of having an affair with her husband. Teresa (Christine Horne) vehemently denies the charge, until Marion shoves the incriminating evidence – a folder stuffed with romantic e-mails – in her face.
That's just the beginning of the revelations in Mand's assured debut play, which covers a lot of ground in 60 intense minutes. The newbie Toronto playwright takes an all-too-familiar scenario – a young woman's relationship with an older married man and the wounded wife's reaction – and examines it from all the angles. This includes not just Marion and Teresa's viewpoints, but also that of Curtis, Marion's husband. He and their little boy, Alex, become vivid if unseen characters over the course of this two-hander.
As the plot progresses, our sympathies shift back and forth between the two women. Marion arrives in Teresa's classroom like the parent from hell and, even after we learn the real source of her barely concealed rage, she's still terrifying. Coyne's angry wife, dressed in a severe grey business suit and stiletto-heeled boots a dominatrix might covet, bears down on Teresa, her eyes daggers, her acid remarks spiked with F-bombs.
We fear for Horne's thin, short-haired Teresa in her pretty wool dress, looking like both a boyish supermodel and a startled fawn. She could be naive and deluded, but she's also a dedicated and progressive teacher devoted to helping the learning-disabled Alex.
Later, though, we begin to feel for Marion when she drops her guard and reveals the anguish behind her fury. She speaks of the sacrifices she's had to make as a working mother and confesses her bewildered pain at the collapse of her 24-year marriage. Teresa, meanwhile, proves to have pain of her own and we discover her attraction to Curtis is based on more than infatuation or lust.
The acting is excellent, and you get to really appreciate it up close in Nightwood's venue, the Tarragon Theatre's Extra Space – an intimate black box where you can see the whites of the actors' eyes. Coyne and Horne originated their roles when Nightwood gave the play a workshop staging at its New Groundswell Festival last season. They clearly own them. Coyne, whose stage appearances have been infrequent in recent years, reminds us of how good she is. As Marion, her presence is so electric it could power the theatre's lighting grid.
Horne, fresh from the SummerWorks hit Iceland, gives another in her string of impressive performances. Her Teresa strikes you as gentle and patient from the moment you see her; you have no doubt she's great with children. I had to keep reminding myself this was the same actress who played a loathsome, racist Hermione in Necessary Angel's Andromache at last year's Luminato.
Kelly Wolf is responsible for the perfect character-defining costumes and also designed the set, an exact replica of an elementary-school classroom. However, it feels more like a boxing ring in director Kelly Thornton's tightly coiled staging. Coyne's parent attacks with a flurry of verbal jabs, while Horne's teacher clutches the blackboard ledge as if she were on the ropes. Richard Feren adds to the tension with a sound design that suggests the rapid, ominous ticking of a school clock.
Mand has chosen a rather odd title for her first play, one more suited to a sex farce. Unless, that is, she's alluding to the kind of intimacies which are normally shared in bed. Regardless, she's a promising writer, and Nightwood has given her script the benefit of two terrific actresses. If you handed out report cards for shows, Between the Sheets would get straight As.