There’s quiet magic on the tiny stage in the small town hall in Chester Massachusetts nestled in the western edge of Pioneer Valley. To New England regional theater aficionados, Chester Theatre Company is a reliable destination for intimate theater of the highest craft. SISTER PLAY, a superbly cast, four- character gem by playwright John Kolvenbach, was my introduction - and a marvelous one at that - to this company’s fare.
Anna, her husband Malcolm, and her younger sister, Lilly – all early middle-age - arrive at the ramshackle cottage of the sisters’ long-deceased father in the Cape Cod woods for their annual family weekend, a ritual in which the patterns of sibling dynamics once again play out. The two girls were abandoned by their mother in their youth, and their father‘s influence not only haunts the retreat, but also fuels their emotional co-dependence. Malcolm understands this all too well; he knows his wife’s bond to her sister is more primary than her bond to him. Malcolm is accustomed to saving the authoritative Anna from herself in dealing with Lilly as much as big sister Anna is used to saving Lilly from herself - or at least her pattern of falling in and out of love serially with losers. Enter one William Lacey, a stranger whom Lilly picks up on midnight ride, the type to trigger the same chain reaction of behavior that links Lilly to Anna to Malcolm.
Kolvenbach’s particularly skillful in unveiling motivation of each character, each of whom breaks down the fourth wall with a soliloquy to the audience. Anna and Lilly track back invariably, dysfunctionall, to their father. Even Malcolm, too, can’t shake the old man; he recounts in detail his first meeting when he and Anna were just 17 years old. In the hands of less skillful playwrights, these internal dialogues could be a mere narrative expedient, but Kolvenbach uses them as emotional exposition: his character’s real motivations come through their actions.
Here, Kolvenbach is rewarded with a wonderful ensemble.
James Barry as Malcolm conveys from the get-go an irresistible good-guy nature that allows him, despite years of frustration, to accommodate the co-dependence of his wife and her sister. As Lilly, Therese Plaehn perfectly reveals all the stubbornness, free-spirit and wishful thinking of a woman who will repeat the same mistake with men over and over. Justin Campbell, the real catalyst for change among Anna, Lilly and Malcolm, amazingly imbues Lacey with rich character detail, while still maintaining Lacey’s enigma. It is Tara Franklin (in real life married to James Barry) as Anna, however, who carries the heaviest dramatic weight. In an elegantly crafted performance, Franklin brings Anna to the point where her response to Lacey holds consequential promise to her sister and husband.
Company artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer directs with an assured sensitivity, totally trusting Kolvenbach’s text, allowing the deep-seeded behavioral rhythms in the characters to enfold naturally. What’s more, he preserves, integral to Kolvenbach’s drama, a sense of mystery. How much of Anna and Lilly’s story is real, how much is imagined or shaped by imperfect memory, how much exists in that emotional space in between?
SISTER PLAY, ultimately, transacts in the spiritual realm. In the final scene, when Anna, still behaving like the big sister, takes a step, measured as it might appear, to respond differently to Lilly’s situation with Lacey, it’s really a little miracle. Kolvenbach reminds us beautifully - quietly - that an individual can break from life-long patterns, grasp the moment of now, and look to a future that might not repeat the past. Change can happen.
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