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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Phoenix Theatre Presents Sisters

Also see Richard's recent review of Homebody/Kabul and Tape


The Phoenix Theatre is currently presenting the American premiere of Sisters, by Canadian playwright Wendy Lill. The Canadians have been "invading" the San Francisco Bay Area theater scene for several years with well written plays. Ms. Lill is a well-known dramatist in our neighbor to the north and has won many awards for her plays in Canada. Sisters gives a tough, uncompromising look at a native residential school run by a Catholic convent in rural Nova Scotia in the 1950s.

The drama focuses on a 17 year-old farm girl who becomes a nun in 1950 and dedicates herself to teaching Canadian Indian children. Twenty years later, she is faced with accusations of having forcefully stripped the Indian children of their native language, customs and religion. She realizes what she has done, and as an act of moral repentance she sets fire to the unoccupied school. The play is based on the Canadian Residential Schools that were operated by the government and the Catholic Church from the 1800s to the mid 1970s. Sisters is based on a true story.

The lead character wanted so desperately to educate and help the children when she was young, but, hampered by the lack of funding and the large number of constricting rules of the Church, she has become a disenchanted nun. Sisters is a dream play, and it goes back and forth between past and present. It is presented in the mind's eye of Sister Mary. She remembers when she first entered the Convent with her head full of dreams to help Indian children. We first see her in 1969, in a county lockup with a young American attorney whose Canadian residence allows him to evade the Vietnam War draft. He will represent her during her trial. The government has decided that the experiment of trying to force the Indians to convert to the Christian faith has failed and these children are not going to be integrated into the regular Canadian school system. We never see the children since the play focuses on the sister's memories. We do hear about the strict adherence of both the children and the nuns to the "manmade" rules of the Sisters of St. Ann.

Sisters is a 90 minute play with one intermission. It is presented almost as a docudrama and, in fact, the playwright did translate the play into a television adaptation for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. It utilizes six characters (four women and two men) and is performed on an almost bare thrust stage against a back wall that looks like a row of confessionals. The ensemble acting, under the direction of Bill English, is exceptional.

Linda Ayres-Frederick is outstanding as Mother Agnes, the overly strict Mother Superior who believes in following the rules to the letter. However, even she has her little vices. Ester Mulligan brilliantly plays Sister Mary in her later years, and is especially effective in the second act when she finally realizes what a monster she has become. Lauren English is charming as the young Sister Mary. Her portrayal of a naive young girl, wanting only to serve God and help Indian children, is touching. Susi Damilano is impish as Sister Gabriel, who is basically uprooted from her urban life in Boston and set down in the middle of a rural community in Nova Scotia. Bruno Kanter gives a notable performance as a runaway American attorney with his own ghosts to conquer. The small cast is rounded out by a new young actor, Joe Ford, as Louis, who is in love with the 17 year Sister Mary. He has the right touch of innocence as the young man. The directorial approach of Bill English to Sister Mary's flashbacks is excellently executed.

Sisters continues through May 25 at its new space at 414 Mason Street, Suite 601 in San Francisco. For tickets call 415-989-0023


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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