Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District
Also see Patrick's recent review of The Wiz
Miriam and Esther grew up in Berkeley with their beloved father, a concert pianist, and their mother, an opera singer. But when dad dies of cancer, mom finds a new husband, Heinrich, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany who made a fortune in his adopted country, and the family moves to New York's Upper West Side.
For Miriam (Ellen Brooks) and Esther (Janet Roitz), who are somewhat estranged from each other, the process of sorting through the detritus of their stepfather's life (at least what is left after his widow has picked over everything–"she took the Spode!") is a chance for the siblings to reconnect and perhaps settle some old scores.
Like an art historian who has discovered a second painting underneath a more recent one, playwright Andrea Gordon has done a marvelous job of gently peeling away the layers of sibling rivalries, regrets and recriminations. There is only a little anger on display here; rather, Gordon has wisely chosen to make the digs (mostly delivered by Miriam) more subtle and polite on the surface, belying the tension underneath. At first, Miriam says Esther can have anything she wants, but each time she makes a request, Miriam replies, "Except that." Esther mentions a ring their mother wore, and Miriam holds out her hand to show she's wearing it. "I never take it off." She offers the ring to Esther, then says coyly, "Oh look–it won't come off." Esther makes her own attempt at a subtle barb when Miriam discovers letters written in German. "I'm fluent," Miriam says, and Esther replies "Well, I know Spanish, which is much more useful."
As they work, the sisters help themselves to the liquor left behind, Miriam imbibing quite a bit more than Esther. "That's the magic of being an alcoholic," she says when Esther suggests it might be a little early in the day to get tipsy: "It's never too early, never too late." When ghosts come out of the woodwork–first mother (Merrill Grant), then, much later, father (R.P. Welsh)–it's almost as if they are memories come to life, rather than specters. The ghost mother appears, singing an aria ("O Mia Babbino Caro," from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi) and fluttering around Esther–but never touching her–as she places items in various boxes and garbage bags. Yet when mother appears again, this time to Miriam, she seems visible, as Miriam touches, strokes, and hugs her as she sings, intimating a deeper connection to her mother than Esther has.
Over the course of 100 minutes or so, long-buried secrets are brought to the surface, some old tensions are resolved, others will continue to fester, but the experience ultimately heals enough wounds that it seems clear the sisters will be more connected in the future.
The set by Nina Ball works nicely, giving the impression of both wealth and chaos. Playwright Gordon also directs, and though the blocking is sometimes a little stiff and unimaginative, she keeps the action moving briskly. The acting is uneven at times: moments when a little vitriol might be called for seem to fizzle, and the chemistry between Miriam and Esther is lacking to such a degree that we don't get a real sense of these two as siblings; they come across merely as actors portraying siblings.
Ultimately, however, the voyeuristic thrill of watching Miriam and Esther in their most vulnerable moments makes Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District a surprisingly successful immersion into one family's odd dynamics.
Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District runs through January 28, 2024, at Magic Theatre at Fort Mason, Two Marina Boulevard, Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $30-$50. For tickets and information, please visit MiriamandEsther.com, call 415-441-8822, or visit the box office, which is open Monday-Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and on Saturday one hour prior to curtain.