This could have had the makings of an uncomfortable evening in the theater: a young company in a new play written to order by a friend of theirs, with an opening-night house full of friends and supporters ready to laugh at every suggestion of a joke. Given those ingredients, a ticket-holder might be forgiven for being a little wary of Sister Play, which opened last week at Wellfleet’s Harbor Stage Company and plays through September 6th. As it was, it took about five minutes flat for the play and its cast to dispel any reservations.
I was prepared to enjoy it anyway, having seen several impressive shows in the company’s compact waterside home over the past couple of years. Most recently, there was last month’s ingeniously staged version of Tom Stoppard’s radio play Artist Descending a Staircase, which gave witty visual counterpoint to the script’s pyrotechnic wordplay. Plus, the author of Sister Play, John Kolvenbach, is no local drinking buddy, hanging out with a script in his back pocket, but a widely produced Olivier Award nominee, and the four actors are polished pros who are perfectly suited (not surprisingly) to their custom-made roles.
The play begins as two sisters return for their annual visit to the semi-derelict Cape Cod cabin where their father died, a place haunted by memories and his persistent spirit. The younger of the two, Lilly, is a unrepentant fuckup – “flailing,” she admits, falling serially for “creeps” and fatally “susceptible to gurus,” as her sister acidly puts it. That’s Anna, the elder, alternately harsh and despairing in her self-imposed duty to protect her flaky sib from self-inflicted pitfalls.
Stacy Fischer and Brenda Withers are seamlessly in sync as the sisters, and their performances lend multiple meanings to Kolvenbach’s title. They are verbally and physically playful with each other, reflecting a lifetime’s intimacy even as they semi-playfully squabble, while also playing on one another’s fears and weaknesses to score hits that scratch and bleed.
As Lilly, Fischer balances a laid-back insouciance with a hunted look that betrays an existential panic, which Withers echoes in Anna’s own prickly anxiety, her angular frame giving the woman a brittle grace. Robert Kropf plays Anna’s husband Malcolm with a slouchy nonchalance, almost an outsider in the sisters’ universe, tossing wry observations (“the only kind I have”) from the sidelines.
Then a real outsider shows up. William is a drifter whose Texas drawl is belied by “a pretentious formality,” as he himself states. Lilly, who’s picked him up hitch-hiking, is charmed and fascinated, but Anna finds him creepy and dangerous. Jonathan Fielding, in a masterfully underplayed performance, gives him all these qualities at once: shy and yes-ma’am polite, but odd and unnerving.
The play is engrossing in its quirky mysteriousness, and Kolvenbach, who also directs, has a gift for laugh-out-loud lines which then turn on themselves as things suddenly become uncomfortable. There are a few plot holes and awkward transitions that made a couple of friends I went with scratch their heads, but we’re meant to be kept off-balance, and I loved the decidedly equivocal, what-now? ending.
What makes the play a definite must-see, and one of the most invigorating theater experiences I’ve had this season, is the cast. This quartet of collaborators is the core of the group that split off two years ago from the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre, reclaiming what had been WHAT’s original home “to re-invigorate the Harbor’s legacy of challenging live performance and return an artist-run operation to the iconic theater.”
An artist-run operation it certainly is. It was Fielding who handed me my tickets at the box office before ducking backstage for the start of the show, and the cast serve as their own between-scene stagehands. That collective spirit is tangible in the performance. You can feel the trust and comfort level among the actors, even sense how much they like each other and enjoy playing together. And that closeness, far from encouraging a self-indulgent camaraderie, enables a smooth meshing of artistic gears and lifts the production to a level that’s rare to see in quick-change summer stock.
Sister Play, then, is about more than a couple of siblings. It’s an exhilarating expression of the vibrant artistic family residing at Harbor Stage.
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