Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Problems Between Sisters
Studio Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Stephanie Janssen and Annie Fox
Photo by Margot Schulman
Problems Between Sisters is the title of Julia May Jonas' play receiving its world premiere in the Mead Theatre at Washington's Studio Theatre–and that title is just the beginning. This dark, dark comedy, with a talented four-woman cast and tightly controlled direction by Sivan Battat, focuses on the difficult connection between Jess (Stephanie Janssen), a poised artist preparing for her first one-woman show, and her younger sister Rory (Annie Fox), a scammer who takes whatever she wants with no thought for those around her.

Jonas created this play as a response to Sam Shepard's True West, which examines the twisted bonds between two estranged brothers, a screenwriter and a petty crook, to see how the situation might play out with women rather than men. To begin with, both Jess, who has specific goals in her life, and the basically feral Rory are eight months pregnant as the action begins.

Jess is using art to process her dysfunctional childhood and youth, creating drawings based on family photos originally sent to her in text messages. Rory, nine years younger than her sister, also sees herself as an artist, both because she is interested (not trained) in drama and dance and in the way she manages to convince strangers to give her money for non-existent good causes.

On the one hand, Rory seems to care little about her own personal hygiene: she arrives with dirt-caked bare feet and appears to have no interest in bathing. On the other, she is determined to eat only "natural" foods and worries that drinking coffee will damage the health of her child.

As in Shepard's play, an arbiter of taste (Maya Jackson as Anita, an elegant gallery owner) finds herself bamboozled by Rory's unrealistic self-confidence while Jess tries to set the record straight. In her long, brightly printed jacket over pristine white shorts and top (one of Helen Q. Huang's more naturalistic costume designs), Anita seems to inhabit a world utterly apart from either Jess or Rory.

In addition, the legendary Washington actress Nancy Robinette appears late in the play and walks off with it. She plays the sisters' aunt, in whose Vermont home they are staying during her (now abbreviated) trip to Paris. Her facial expressions, physical postures, shifting facial expressions as she tries to understand her nieces' behavior, and dead-on line readings come together to create a gem of a performance.

Emmie Finckel's scenic design squeezes a remarkable amount of detail into the unit set, from the books on the built-in bookshelves to the rough-hewn dining table and chairs and the side window displaying the lush Vermont greenery outside. Lighting designer Colin K. Bills integrates actual lighting fixtures (notably a chandelier made from antlers) with more expressionistic touches.

Problems Between Sisters runs through June 16, 2024, in at Studio Theatre, Mead Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-332-3300 or visit

By Julia May Jonas
Directed by Sivan Battat
Jess: Stephanie Janssen
Rory: Annie Fox
Anita: Maya Jackson
Aunt Barb: Nancy Robinette