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The Siblings Play

Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 17, 2020

Ed Ventura, Cindy De La Cruz, and Mateo Ferro
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Before the houselights dimmed for Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre's The Siblings Play, Ren Dara Santiago's portrait of a family in crisis, the company manager issued the usual reminders about cellphones and photography. Capping the speech, however, was a chilling prediction that this live performance, presented two days after most of the city's theaters had already closed due to the coronavirus, would be the last one most of us would see for possibly a very long time.

In this topsy-turvy moment in which social distance is the new mandated lifestyle, the play focuses on the need for people to provide comfort and spiritual healing in periods of need. Santiago states in a poetic program note, "And it will only work if we're all in this together./ If we can make the space/ A Hero needs/ to be human again./ A chance to recognize the opportunity to be there for another."

The Siblings Play takes place in Harlem during the summer of 2014, and it reveals a household riven by poverty, drug abuse, and family trauma. Angelica Borrero's scenic design perfectly captures a sense of deep emotional scars as the fa├žade appears to be violently ripped from the walkup apartment building. Interior walls have gaping holes like torn flesh, exposing an unstable skeleton and laying bare the home's fetid core. (The characters make several allusions to the apartment's foul smell). Aided by Zach Blane's ghostly lighting, painful memories and figures from the past move through the space like an infection.

At the center of the story is 17-year-old Marie (Cindy De La Cruz), who serves the dual function of protective big sister and nurturing mother for her 13-year-old brother Butchie (Mateo Ferro). The siblings' older brother Leon (Ed Ventura) moved out some time before, but he provides support in the form of money and, on special occasions, fried chicken. The teens' parents include Lenora (Dalia Davi), their mother who is more interested in late-night dinner dates than raising children, and Logan (Andy Lucien), their abusive, cheating father who has not been heard from in three years. Family allegiances are tested and old wounds are opened (amid shocking revelations) when Logan reenters the family picture and tries to assume a patriarchal role.

Dalia Davi and Ed Ventura
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
The play, under the direction of Jenna Worsham, is most effective in the scenes that quietly depict the precarious family dynamics and emotional bonds among the siblings and parents. Especially affecting is a scene between the two brothers in which the older instructs the younger in the differences between sex and real love. In an unguarded moment of honesty, Leon explains, "I don't know... I need a lot of love, Butch. Like, I need so much it's actually scary. Right? I don't wanna give it to nobody 'cause I think it's like, a burden how much I need. Nobody gonna get it like we get it." Unfortunately, though, for much of the play passions run very high, and the characters tend to scream and shout, with an effect that is wearying rather than disturbing.

The company of actors do fine work, and they movingly convey the social and economic obstacles the characters face on a daily basis. Resisting stereotypical portrayals, they offer believable renderings of the struggling, barely scraping by Harlem residents. In particular, De La Cruz, as the teenage woman who circumstantially must be the surrogate mother for both her siblings and puerile mater, gives a grounded, carefully wrought performance.

Hopefully, audiences will have a chance to see The Siblings Play when the theaters reopen. It is not a perfect play by any means, and there are a few last-gasp plot twists that do not quite ring true and slightly diminish the poignancy of the play's final minutes. Still, Santiago has a fresh, raw voice, and she is a playwright to follow.

The Siblings Play
On hiatus until further notice, due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Rattlestick is currently selling tickets to at-home viewings of The Siblings Play. Visit for more information.
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, New York City