Sister Play, by John Kolvenbach. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Justin Campbell, Therese Plaehn, Tara Franklin, James Barry; photo: RobKimmelDesign
"Everyone wants a knight who kicks justifiable ass."
Tara Franklin and Therese Plaehn; photo: RobKimmelDesign
2016, Summer of: a season of plays about sisters, it seems. Starting in April with Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy, "The Norman Conquests" - three plays shared through the season by Northern Stage, Dorset Playhouse and Weston Playhouse, continuing with "Gypsy" about the Hovick girls, June (Havoc) and Gypsy Rose Louise (Lee), on through the more recent "Kimberly Akimbo" at Barrington Stage and "Ugly Lies the Bone" and "The Emperor of the Moon" at Shakespeare and Company, "Peerless" with its twin sisters at Barrington Stage and their production with eight sisters of "The Pirates of Penzance," Williamstown Theatre Festival's "Romance Novels for Dummies," and "The City of Conversation" at Oldcastle Theater in Bennington, VT. Now Chester Theatre brings us John Kolvenbach's "Sister Play" (I won't even venture the forthcoming "Sister Act" which is not about sisters, really, at the Mac-Haydn) in which two sisters impossible to separate in spite of their many differences in character are put into a situation where sisterhood may be thrown on the open flames of a sizzling bonfire.
Tara Franklin plays Anna and Therese Plaehn plays Lilly, sisters who practically raised one another after their parents separated and they stayed with their father who was controlling but not very emotionally supportive. Anna, the elder, feels more responsibility for her flighty younger sister than a sibling ought, than a parent should. She is overwhelmingly connected to Lilly and to all of her baby sister's foibles, choices, errors, mistakes and poor judgements of character in the men she meets. The poor child, now thirty-one, is more to be censured than pitied, it seems, and Anna is just the controlling female to do it. Even her husband, Malcolm, feels the unusual pressures imposed by his wife on her sister and reflecting on him and on their marriage. Anna, who is sweet and genuine, is also living everyone else's lives rather than her own. She is a woman in trouble, deep trouble.
Lilly, on the other hand, shows nothing but poor judgement in selecting her partners, even on a trip to their father's dismal cabin, an annual excursion of obeisance, Lilly manages to pick up a stray, a man with nothing to pursue, nothing to flee from and nothing to offer. Naturally she is attracted to him to the utter dismay of Anna who continually dictates conditions to the man for even sleeping on the floor, or coming to dinner.
This should all make for a very funny evening of theater. Somehow director Daniel Elihu Kramer has taken the play in the opposite direction and has given it a gravitas it doesn't really deserve. It's messages are really clear and its language is just the other side of realistic so that emphasizing the more serious aspects of these folks makes them feel a bit too artificial and contrived. Had he given it over more to the comedy side, the play might not have seemed forced.
Tara Franklin is a perfect Anna for this production. She is lovely and reasonable and a reluctant game-player when her little sister demands game-time. She brings a domestic side to the stage that works for Anna, but her romantic bits - which should be lovely considering that her own husband is playing her own husband - fall short of believability because they feel so much the same as her manic moments. Given the opportunity to play the lighter side, I think Franklin's Anna would have been sincerely endearing instead of enduringly over-sincere.
Justin Campbell plays the "stranger" who appears among this family group. His open sincerity is perfect for this role. He makes the man into a welcome relief from the craziness that surrounds him. But, once again, the heaviness of the interpretation here makes it harder for him to function in this way. His oddness feels like a bit too much of the same thing. It's a pity because I liked what he brought to the character; he just couldn't stand out in this madhouse country shack.
Therese Plaehn is an odd choice for the baby sister. She bears no resemblance at all to Franklin, not in looks, build, bearing. She plays the role with honesty and a wonder and you can feel the comedy leaking out of the despair with her in the part, but it rarely gets far enough onto the stage to make an important difference. Throughout the play I felt her somehow need to dance, to express her independent nature in movement, but there is no point in the play where she is given that shot at expression. Still I liked her performance a great deal. She never sounded as though she was saying lines someone else had written and that was refreshing.
Tara Franklin and Justin Campbell; photo: RobKimmelDesign
Tara Franklin and James Barry; photo: RobKimmelDesign
James Barry is inspired casting in the role of Malcolm, Anna's novelist husband. His dark, Irish looks, more comfortable in pensive mode than in lyrical mode, work to his advantage in this play where he is perturbed, confused, attracted, distracted and abashed. It is wonderful to see that there is a comedy sensibility buried under the more usual dramatics we've seen from him in the past. I so wanted him to have more time to relax and let go and make us smile, and laugh and roar at some of the funniest situations in the play, but once again all of that is withheld in this most important production of a bizarre "dramedy" that could have been so much more.
David Towlun's set is an ideal setting for the circumstances and the people involved, alive and -- more importantly - dead. Elizabeth Pangburn's costumes worked admirably for the people and the production, especially her one guaranteed laugh costume, a turkish towel. Lara Dubin's lighting design was good, very filmic in fact with its fades to black, spoilt only by a bump up of light for the set adjustments by the crew which I always wish was not necessary. Sound Designer James McNamara's crickets worked perfectly.
It did seem a shame that McNamara's bio in the program was so large that there was nothing written about the playwright whose history I do not know. Even the insert interview with him didn't satisfy my curiosity, so if you go to the show and want to know more about the author, look him up first. Nominated for an Olivier Award for his comedy "Love Song," there is a fair amount of information to be had by googling him.
An interesting group of people in several ongoing situations that will keep you occupied for two hours are what you will find in front of you at the Chester Theater in this "Sister Play." They will be people you can sympathize with even when they are taking themselves much too seriously, but they will never be folks you empathize with in spite of your desire to do so. This production is a mixed blessing with the work of talented people throughout and on every level in every area, but there is a concept that gets in the way of the play. Pity! In August, a nice comedy would be the perfect thing on these dog-day evenings.
Sister Play will be performed at the Chester Theatre, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester, MA through August 14. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7771 or go on line at chestertheatre.tix.com.