nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 28, 2007
Wise, warm, and full of heart and humor, Sister Cities by Colette Freedman is one of the best new plays of the season. The New York premiere at T. Schreiber Studio is splendid, featuring expert, detailed direction by Cat Parker; elegant and appropriate design by George Allison (set), Karen Ann Ledger (costumes), Andrea Boccanfuso (lighting), and Chris Rummel (sound); and excellent performances by its cast of five women.
Four of those women portray sisters—the daughters of a free-spirited, independent-minded woman named Mary, who have gathered at her house in Poughkeepsie, New York, on the occasion of her death. Austin, second of the four half-sisters, lived with Mary here, and she had the grim task of informing the others, who are far-flung: Carolina, the eldest, a lawyer and recent divorcee living in Seattle; Dallas, a married schoolteacher from Philadelphia; and Baltimore, the youngest (26), pursuing a degree in sociology at Harvard.
So you're thinking: what's up with the ladies' names? Mary decided she would name her girls for the places where they were born; after a somewhat ambiguous start with Carolina, she opted to very specifically name them for the cities of their birth. It's a testament to the strength and authenticity of Freedman's script that this possibly gimmicky notion feels entirely organic and natural in context—especially once we get to meet Mary, in an extended flashback at the beginning of Act Two.
The play is mostly about how a family copes with grief and change and each other; it is, in a way, almost Chekhovian in that very little actually happens in the play, except that the sisters communicate and eventually find a way to tell the truth—to themselves and to each other—and those truths are...sometimes...perhaps...freeing. There's also an important plot surprise that shapes a key debate within the play, but I don't want to spoil it here; I really want you to see Sister Cities for yourself, and take it all in the way it's meant to be experienced, without knowing too much about any of these extraordinary women.
For they are extraordinary, because we are all extraordinary: this, I believe, is the core of Freedman's play. It's particularly refreshing to come upon a group of smart, independent women who don't require a mate to define them; but it's wonderful also just to spend time with such richly individual, human characters.
Parker has cast the play sharply, and each of the five women on stage realizes her role vividly and intelligently. Maeve Yore anchors the drama and the family as the daughter who still lives at home, Austin, a successful writer in the middle of a fallow period. Ellen Reilly plays Carolina, who is uptight, smart, rich, and unhappy; she manages this balance beautifully, keeping this woman clear of obvious caricature. Emberli Edwards imbues the self-declared "normal" sister Dallas with enough quirks and personality to ensure that she holds her own and then some with her siblings. Jamie Neumann, as the free-thinker Baltimore, shows us the zany, spirited side of this woman as well as the frightened, insecure aspect just beneath the surface. And Judith Scarpone, with only a relatively few moments of stage time, renders Mary clearly and unforgettably as the woman behind these four remarkable daughters.
The chemistry and interplay among all five is admirable: they convince us right away that they're a family, with an unconditional acceptance and love underlying all of their transactions together, even as it's clear that they don't always like or understand one another.
They are unquestionably a family worth spending time with; I advise you to check out Sister Cities and enjoy their company and also share in the wrenching challenges that they face in this unusual and thought-provoking play.