Colette Freedman’s Sister Cities explores familial relationships, self-identity, and life-choices told through the meticulously carved rhetoric of four sisters’ conversations in the wake of their mother’s death in their suburban home in Poughkeepsie, New York. It’s suitable that the T. Schreiber Studio, known for fostering the development of actors in “a supportive and collaborative environment“ since 1969, has selected this play to premier their 2007-08 season. Cat Parker directs a polished and natural all female ensemble in this character driven serio-comic drama about sisterhood.
Melancholy instrumental house music seamlessly transitions to James Taylor on a distant kitchen radio onstage. Decorative exhibit lamps illuminate the numerous photos on the walls, while the drawn, dark curtains allow for the soft glow of the chandelier and the oversized table lamp to drown the suburban living room with somber shadows. After a few moments, Carolina, a tall, lean, successful lawyer, opens the front door and Baltimore, the young bohemian Harvard student, raucously bolts through behind her to use the upstairs bathroom. Carolina proceeds to soberly throw open the window drapes to force the sunlight to glare through into the interior. Through the icy tension of the estranged family, the sisters reunite with Austin, a writer, still dressed in her pajamas, who’s been living with their now deceased mother, Mary.
The first scene not only establishes the situations of their mother’s death, but also begins to extrude the answers to what has kept these sisters apart, living across America, all these years. Once Dallas, the perfectly proper, happily married middle child, arrives, the sisters, each named after the city in which they were born, each by different fathers, relive the past and reveal their present. In Colette Freedman’s eloquent dialogue, realistic sibling banter, and several heated arguments, the four sisters evaluate their relationship to their mother and how they have judged and been judged through her image. Through trying to understand their dancing mother, who survived many years of fruitful, promiscuous happiness across the globe, the sisters realize the common threads that link them as a family.
Freedman’s language and story conceive strong dramatic conflict and naturally vibrant relationships. Through Cat Parker’s precise direction (assistant direction by Frank Mihelich), Freedman’s character-driven script is donned a complimentary realistic world. Each actress creates a distinctly different personality and physical trait that distinguishes her amongst the sisters.
Ellen Reilly (Carolina) commands the household upon her entrance. With her rigid, long strides across the room and her formal, calculated diction, Reilly embodies the characteristics of a guarded, professional career woman. In contrast, Jamie Neumann (Baltimore) plays a free-spirited bohemian intellect with appropriate eccentricities. Neumann’s gritty, animated vocal quality gives Baltimore’s sharp, witty insights an earthen, lived-in feeling. Neumann skillfully swaggers, completely comfortable with her body, but with a sense of restless wandering, over every corner of the room. Maeve Yore (Austin) displays a clearly observant, sarcastic writer, placating to her mother because of her own insecurities and her compassion. Yore eloquently exhibits the depression that plagues Austin through her slothful physical demeanor and her lethargic meandering. Emberli Edwards (Dallas) plays the good and proper sister. Edwards’s perfectly poised posture seated in a chair with legs crossed effectively contrasts Yore’s bent and broken Austin.
The audience is afforded the delightful opportunity to witness the sisters’ mother, as Judith Scarpone embodies Mary. Scarpone, reflects the elegance of the Degas ballet dancer painting that resides over the mantelpiece. She reposes peacefully in the armchair and happily waxes reminiscent over life and her daughters. Through the twinkle in Scarpone’s eye, the graceful timbre of her frail voice, and her subtle manipulation for compassion, one can’t help but feel sentimental.
The cohesion of the world in which these characters live can be attributed to the artistry of the creative team. Karen Ann Ledger, costume designer, coordinates color tones and silhouettes that match the characters’ individualities. George Allison’s television realistic set design, complete with cedar ceiling beams and rustic under-the-stairs storage space, built by Rohit Kapoor, and Carolyn Mraz’s intricately detailed set decoration enable the sisters to float effortlessly throughout their childhood suburban home. Chris Rummel’s sound design sets the mood during transitions and at the top of the show, subtly brings the audience from the theater directly into the home. The lighting design by Andrea Boccanfuso with it’s exhibition of the photos on the walls, the ambient sunlight through the windows, and the real light switches emphasizes that the sisterhood that grew in youth in this home, although affected now by their lives outside, can still be nurtured within its walls.
Through the collaboration of the creative team and the precision of the ensemble, Freedman’s story and characters’ conversations cross barriers between rooms and flow naturally. In this production of Sister Cities in the Gloria Maddox Theatre, the audience has the opportunity to immerse themselves into the home to become living voyeurs within its walls. Sister Cities, a serio-comic drama, beautifully illustrates through Freedman’s witty rhetoric and Parker’s succinctly realistic direction, the joys and pitfalls of sisterhood and how a mother’s death can bring a family together.