Penumbra finds laughter and honesty
Daughters is a dramatic comedy about relationships, set in 1995, that delves into issues of class, generation, gender and reverse racism, as three African American sisters reunite in their family home in a white suburb in Pittsburgh 10 years after their parents' death in an accident. Dominating Billie is the eldest, a successful financial advisor and a snob. Sarah is idealistic and radical, a fierce intellectual and a history professor at a college where she has just been denied tenure. Free-spirited Abbey has just completed a 10-year wander around the globe and returns with an Israeli husband. Each daughter wants to live in the house with her significant other, but old jealousies and resentments leap into play as soon as they are together.
Over the span of three hours, the two older sisters slash at each other in wonderfully original verbal swordplay, as they maneuver for advantage in tensions grounded in childhood. The three girls are widely spaced in age, so their experiences of the family barely match, and they reflect different generations, culturally. Each sister's choice of a man generates fascinating layers of racism, seen from within black life. Billie has Zak, her tame white husband, a man stuck in adolescence who is accustomed to the family strife. Young Abbey has Uri; he struggles with English and with the ferment and inverse racism in the family. Sarah, the lightest-skinned sister, has Spencer, an erudite graduate student and a black, black man.
Euell's witty dialogue stimulates and surprises, but her character Billie remains one note for too long. Ericka Dennis plays Billie with unremitting fury. From the moment Billie steps on stage, she's a huge presence, angry and manipulative. She generates strife with every word she hurls. Thirty-something Billie wants a child and has passive white Zak to service her, but she's so unpleasant that even her longing evoked no empathy in me. Not until the closing moments of the play does the script allow her to soften enough to reveal the hurts that drive her ire. By then, it's too late.
Director Lou Bellamy works with a group of actors new to the Penumbra stage and draws carefully calibrated performances from the five remaining actors. He succeeds in giving some contour to Zak and Uri, two superficially-drawn roles, by having the actors express pain through body language.
Billie's husband, Zak, could be just a prop for Billie's dysfunction, but Brent Doyle conveys an appealing humanity in the role. He's a kept man who dreams of the surf of Hawaii but submits to placating his controlling wife.
Dylan Fresco also finds pathos in the lightly sketched role of Abbey's Israeli husband, Uri. With his heavy accent and difficulties with English, Uri could be a mere source of comedy. But Fresco plumbs Uri's discomfort in this aggressive household and, with their frequent eye contact and canoodling intimacy, he and Abbey form the only convincing couple in the play. Uri has a hilarious moment when eating collard greens. He asks, "What are colored greens?" There's a moment of appalled silence at this racially polarized table, before everyone jumps on him.
Pretty Kimberly Morgan plays Abbey as a pleasing, sometimes pot-happy, post-hippie. Abbey's ploy is to let the family discord roll off her.
Thomasina Petrus takes on the role of Sarah, the sharp-tongued idealist. Petrus matches Billie's anger barb for barb, but Euell gives Sarah room to evolve from a defended, somewhat butch professor to a woman, vulnerable to the vicissitudes of love. Heavyset Petrus is hardly a typical target of student love, but she handles the role with zeal.
As Spencer, Sarah's student, tall Rob Manning exudes quiet sensuality, particularly in a scene in which Spencer and Sarah work out together in balletic desire. Manning has natural stage presence, and he finesses a long poem on the Million Man March that could have sounded didactic.
Over a period of five days, Daughters switches between three different rooms in a nicely detailed, old-fashioned suburban house. With a two-tiered set design, Jason Allyn-Schwerin cleverly incorporates all three sets on Penumbra's small stage, and Mark Dougherty's lighting design clarifies the scene switches.
Euell closes the play with the hokey device of a long-lost letter. But spots and all, Daughters is a lively and thoughtful comedy that has much to recommend it.
Diva Daughters Dupree February 10 - March 7, 2004. $30 - $35. Wednesdays 10:00 a.m.; Thursdays and Sundays 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Penumbra Theatre, 270, North Kent Street, St. Paul. Call 651-224-3180. Online: www.penumbratheatre.org.