Eugene Weekly : Theater : 8.9.07

Women in Search
The VLT’s Sisters find their identities

Three sisters: European mythology and literature are replete with the trope, from the goddesses competing for the golden apple to the Fates, the Graces, the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, Lear’s daughters and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. So Wendy Wasserstein’s 1993 play The Sisters Rosensweig, now running at the Very Little Theatre, is grounded in that heritage, but with an added twist: These women, over and above all, must work out what it means to be Jewish in a sometimes hostile and contingent world.

Sparks fly among Gorgeous (Nancy Beyett), Sara (Maggie Muellner) and Pfeni (Emily Gilbert)

The Holocaust and AIDS also hang around Sisters, casting their long shadows over the action as the women work through and around career, sex, love, class, history, children and politics on a late August weekend of 1991. In this captivating producton, Maggie Tryk’s clear direction combines with the fine set, interesting costumes and, notably, fairly subtle and strong acting to present the intelligent, flawed script with skill and finesse.

The VLT’s ambitious presentations can be marred by pratfalls common to community theater, namely running gags (especially unnecessary slapstick) and tics that some actors use as a crutch rather than a way to inhabit characters. This time, the VLT gets it right.

Sisters focuses around the 54th birthday of Sara Goode, the oldest sister, who lives in a large house in London’s Queen Anne’s Gate. The house is fully represented by its huge but fussy living room, designed with balance and intelligence by Amy Dunn, so that when the curtains open, one expects perhaps a sort of drawing-room comedy. But life is serious for Sara (Maggie Muellner, in a wonderful turn, sexy and vulnerable, steely and soft), serious in two ways. A muckety-muck high up in international banking, she thinks that neither Harvard nor Yale is good enough for her daughter. Along with her evident crush on the English archconservative and possibly pedophilic Nicholas Pym (Rick Brissenden, nigh-on perfect as this horrible man), this snotty thought shows that Sara, who grew up lower middle class in New York, has internalized an upper-class conservative English point of view. Secondly, she’s recovering from a bout with ovarian cancer; she hasn’t had a lover in a while; and she’s worried about her daughter, Tess (Liza Burns, a South Eugene High School grad playing an insouciant yet smart 17-year-old with élan), who seems to be in love with a lower-class punk English kid (played to the character-actor’s hilt by the sparkling, enjoyable Tom Wilson).

The kids want to pop over to Vilnius to help with the Lithuanian freedom movement just as the Soviet Union crumbles. Sara’s suitor Merv (a hangdog but persistent Dale Flynn) tosses in a comment that European nationalist movements have never been good for Jews. The sweep of European history and its ugly, rabid moments rear up more and more often as the play goes on. Later, Tess exclaims that she’s always standing outside, not quite a part of the world around her. That’s been a painful and often fatal experience for Jews in Europe, a history that Tess and Sara each must confront.

Sara has other worries: Pfeni (Emily Gilbert, whose presence absolutely glows), the younger of her two sisters, is a globetrotting travel writer who can’t finish writing a book and who has a flamboyant, bisexual, part-time boyfriend, Geoffrey (Mike Hawkins, who wins laughs for his costume and lithe movements but who needs to work on his easily lost accent). The moments of intimacy between Pfeni and Sara shine with tenderness and wry capitulation.

The other sister, Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Nancy Boyett, superb in this thankless role), is what Sara thinks of as “too much”: Too loud, too earthy, too pushy, too … As Merv points out, what Sara actually feels is that Gorgeous is too Jewish. Not only that, but Gorgeous takes offense easily, and she’s hiding a secret while trying to become an international radio personality. Sara’s birthday brings out the worst and the best in every character.

Though Wasserstein paints each sister as an individual, there’s more to the story: Gorgeous represents the shameful, wounded body that bleeds and sweats and hurts; Sara plays the mind, sharp as steel and as lonely as it is cold. Pfeni, the wanderer, stands in for the heart, that wild object that can’t decide what it wants. Meanwhile, the sisters also stand for different classes, different choices, different escape routes from their childhood. The women of this production play their parts well and let the script do its own heavy lifting. Tryk’s direction, Muellner’s willowy strength, Gilbert’s solid spark and Boyett’s flamboyance, along with smart turns from the supporting cast members, make this a remarkable end to the VLT’s 78th season.  

The Sisters Rosensweig continues Aug. 10-12, 16-19 & 23-25. Tix available at 344-7751.