Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

Sister Play
Chester Theatre Company
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of The Pirates of Penzance

Justin Campbell, Therese Plaehn, Tara Franklin,
and James Barry

Photo by Richard Teller
John Kolvenbach's Sister Play, more cogent after intermission, ultimately bids a theatergoer ponder implications beyond its final curtain. Produced for the first time in this region, it continues at Chester Theatre in Chester, Massachusetts through August 14th. Characters surely drive the plot of the four character piece, set within the interior of a worn out, shabby-looking cottage somewhere on Cape Cod.

The play begins when Malcolm (James Barry) enters and offers a bit of solo exposition. "What percentage of this house is mold?" He talks to himself, he talks to the audience. Soon, we meet Anna ( dark haired Tara Franklin), the controlling, authoritative, older sister - one whose intentions center upon herself. Her sibling Lilly (blond Therese Plaehn) is something of a latter-day flower child, a young woman with questionable judgment. She does, during an initial moment with her older sister, encourage Anna to place her weight on Lily's lap. This could be a metaphor, emblematic of greater complexity within their relationship. Their father passed away 17 years ago and the girls lived with relatives. Their unreliable mother was not a stable presence and, too often, far away.

The stop-and-go story moves forward when Lily brings "home" an even more wayward soul, William (Justin Campbell), a man she found on the side of the road. He says, "I'm a vagrant, a tramp." He is not especially appealing but Lily takes to this guy and hopes he will come to dinner the following evening. Later, the newcomer describes himself as a stranger. Lily's ultimate self-analysis: "William Casy is my latest mistake or he isn't."

Sister Play hasn't immediate impact as its first hour of philosophizing can be trying. The second act is shorter, tighter, and far more successful. Kolvenbach's dialogue and Daniel Elihu Kramer's direction dictate that characters often speak indirectly, as if looking beyond or over someone else's shoulder. Additionally, the playwright supplies a number of mini-monologues. Malcolm's first speech is important and helpful. That device, though, might be over-utilized. The characters do not always connect and writer Kolvenbach must have intended this to be the case. The final portion of the play provides some clarity.

Two casting choices for Sister Play are most intriguing. Tara Franklin, playing Anna, has made 10 or so appearances in Stockbridge for Berkshire Theatre Group. As an actor, she projects a natural radiance and warmth on stage. Anna, whom she personifies, pushes hard to have implementation of her vision and version of what she deems rightful. Her real-life and, for Sister Play, husband, James Barry, has appeared on Broadway, in the Berkshires and elsewhere. He he was part of the performance group which presented for the wonderfully energized These Paper Bullets which premiered at Yale Repertory Theater. Malcolm is seemingly caught in between everyone and everything and goes, more or less, along with the flow.

Lilly, insecurely searching and randomly opinionated, provides counterpoint to her older sister. William Casy, a strange one, a wild card, an unfortunate misfit.

While Sister Play at times has a reality feel, that is not consistently so. How could a young woman pick up an odd man on the side of the road, drive him to her current house, wish that he return for a meal - and, thereby, anticipate hitching herself to a nobody?

This play certainly congeals more effectively as it heads towards a conclusion. Moreover, it presents much to contemplate. The late father's aura permeates. The young women have each endured difficulties due to loss during formative years. Malcolm, a buffer, is able to compromise. William's future is unknown. He is lonely as are, perhaps, others on the stage.

Kolvenbach's Sister Play, sometimes about the sisters and sometimes about others, is most promising during the final third of its two hour running time — and encourages one to think further even after the theater grows dark. Earlier, it is sometimes halting, sometimes talky. The author's characters, while stressed, are not really in obvious conflict with each other. Thus, the production is very much a mix.

Sister Play continues at Chester Theatre Company in Chester, Massachusetts through August 14th, 2016. For tickets, call (413) 354-7771 or visit

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