Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sisters of Peace is the second of three new shows this season for which History Theatre re-branded itself as HERstory Theatre, plays by women that tell stories about women and their history-making contributions to society. Sisters captures the essence of four women born to the most ordinary circumstancesa Carver County farm family of eleven siblings who, each for their own reason, took their vows early in life as a matter of faith, not politics. In the course of their service within the church, each came to recognize that their duty to God and the church compel them to speak out and act against injustice, violence, and the abuse of power. Their actions have been non-partisan, aimed only at bringing the values imbedded in their faith to fruition on earth.
Doris Baizley's script is episodic but extremely well written, weaving together the chords of the four sisters' separate journeys while allowing each to stand as a unique individual. All four have very different personalities, and each comes to her stance as a peace activist on her own terms. An opening series of quick takes informs us that the sisters were repeatedly arrested for acts of civil disobedience, have directly spoken truth to power, and are charming, quick-witted, and true to their faith. We are then taken back to their youth on the farm where the large family barely ekes out a living, and we meet their doting father and practical but always supportive mother. When Jane, the youngest, joins three of her sisters at the convent, her mother faces the heartache of having her baby fly away.
At the convent each sister is assigned a job to provide serviceRita (Wendy Lehr) at a youth sports program, Brigid (Peggy O'Connell) teaching first graders, Kate (Katherine Ferrand) a hospital switchboard operator, and Jane (Sue Scott) a cafeteria lady at Holy Angels Academy. In 1969, Jane encounters a high school student protesting the war in Vietnam. As the student explains what is wrong about the war, Jane recognizes a calling in herself, and in short order, joins the protestors. She reaches out to her three sisters who, in their own time, join her for five decades of activism.
Over the ensuing decades, we witness the McDonalds stand up against threats to world peace: at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where military police are trained for third world dictatorships; at Twin Cities armament factories producing cluster bombs; by protecting land sacred to native Americans from being bulldozed for a highway; when the church refuses communion to a parishioner wearing a gay pride rainbow flag; at the 2008 Republican national convention in St. Paul, where they are among protesters who are tear gassed before being arrested; and over and over against wars.
They face personal challenges as well, from counseling their nephew Jim who seeks conscientious objector status to avoid serving in Vietnam, to Thanksgiving when their brother KJ (Jim's dad and eventual conservative Republican state legislator) confronts them for their continued peace activism in the wake of the September 11 attacks. When this argument threatens to disrupt their family dinner, Jane defuses the tension with an old Irish toast: "Here's to you and here's to me/And if by chance we disagree/To hell with you!/And here's to me!" These sisters are nuns, but they are spikey nuns.
The McDonalds are also known for their harmonic singing, and a few samples are interspersed throughout the show, some protest songs and others old tunes the family enjoyed singing together, like their Pop's favorite, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive."
Director Barbara Berlovitz moves this anecdotal portrayal spread over six decades at a fast clip, making sense of leaps of a decade or so, and maintains a clear sense if one of the sisters is the focal point of a scene, or if they have traveled back in time to present the sisters as young women (all given distinctive readings by actor Annick Dall). The creative team has done a splendid job of establishing the settings and linking them to the times, with Aaron Gabriel's musical scoring and Kathy Maxwell's video work underscoring the context, and Mike Wangen's lighting design heightening the drama.
Four marvelous actors portray the four McDonald sisters, with chemistry that makes you wonder if they did not, in fact, all grow up together. Katherine Ferrand is Kate, the most reticent of the sisters, and Wendy Lehr is Rita, the oldest who assumes the "voice of authority", or at least attempts to, among her siblings. Peggy O'Connell plays Brigid, most outspoken and with a bawdy sense of humor that is part of her charm, and Sue Scott is Jane, youngest and, as depicted, often the most clear-minded.
In addition to terrific work by Annick Dall, mentioned above, the cast includes Terry Hempleman, demonstrating his range as Pop, adult TJ, and Pope John XXIII; Melinda Kordich, sentimental as Mom and sassy as Catholic Worker activist Dorothy Day; and Ben Shaw as young KJ, Jim, and other roles, including an affecting turn as a young man heckling the sisters, calling them traitors to America, who is able to open his heart just enough to respond to Jane when she reaches for a human connection.
I had a wonderful time at Sisters of Peace, owing to the playwright's strong grip on the material, the excellent performances and lively production, and the fact that it confirmed my own world view and political leanings. Those positions were clearly shared by the packed audience on opening night. However, I would like to believe that Sisters of Peace would play just as well to audience members who hold different positions on the issues, who in some cases might be on the side being protested by these four indefatigable women. Their courage, deep conviction, and unwavering faith certainly ought to inspire anyone. Their always alert senses of humor and delight in the simple pleasures of nature and human contact are uplifting. While, for many patrons of History Theatre, Sisters of Peace may indeed be preaching to the choir, it has the potential to span the deep chasm that has riven our nation with bridges of faith and humanity.
Sisters of Peace, through April 14, 2019, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets, Tiers 1-3: $30.00 - $42.00; seniors (age 60+) $27.00 - $37.00; under 30 -$30.00; students $15.00. All Tier 4 tickets: $20.00. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Doris Baizley; Director: Barbara Berlovitz; Scenic Design: Annie Henley; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Lee Christiansen; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Music/Composer: Aaron Gabriel; Dramaturg: Jim Stowell; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Assistant Director: Paul de Cordova; Stage Manager: D. Marie Long; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh.
Cast: Annick Dall (Young Jane/Young Rita/Young Kate/Young Brigid/ensemble), Katherine Ferrand (Kate), Terry Hempleman (Pop/KJ/Pope John XXIII/ensemble), Melinda Kordich (Mom/Dorothy Day/ ensemble), Wendy Lehr (Rita), Peggy O'Connell (Brigid), Sue Scott (Jane), Ben Shaw (Young KJ/Jim/ ensemble).