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Problems Between Sisters

Based on a play by the American playwright Sam Shepard.

I have a problem reviewing this play. Problems Between Sisters at the Studio Theatre is based on the really good Sam Shepard play, True West. That play follows the sibling rivalry between estranged brothers, who have now reconnected. It is set in California, outside of Los Angeles, in the foothills of the San Garbiel Valley. The play revolves around the brothers’ volatile relationship as they navigate their contrasting lifestyles, and aspirations, while staying in their mother's house. Shepard's writing in True West is characterized by its raw, gritty realism, as well as its dark humor and psychological depth.

Problems Between Sisters is basically a rewrite of the Shepard play by Julia May Jonas. She writes about two sisters, and their volatile relationship after reconnecting. They have been living very different lives. They meet in their aunt’s home near New York City.  The hook Jonas uses to get the audience into the play is that both sisters are pregnant. For me that didn’t work for either psychological depth, or dark humor. So, the play left me, and a few of the audience members I spoke too, asking, why? 

I must give credit to Sivan Battat, the Director, who did a good job with the play she was given.

It opens with Jess (Stephanie Janssen), a very talented actor, sitting in her aunt’s home preparing for her one-woman art show in a Chelsea gallery.  She is very pregnant, and thirty-nine years old. We find out she finally is getting the one-woman show she has worked toward since she graduated college.  She is married to a successful man, and living a comfortable life. As the play moves forward, her younger sister Rory (Annie Fox), shows up unexpectedly, and is clearly a totally different person. She has lived the life of a vagabond, doesn’t have a job, lies, scams people for money, and doesn’t know who the father of her child is. We are introduced to all this while she is sitting at the table chewing on her filthy foot. Fox seems to think, or was directed, to be loud, to bring attention to her issues. I don’t think that works very well. 

Photo by Peter Rosenstein

The only thing we believe the sisters have in common is the same mother and father, and both being very pregnant. As the play moves forward there are times when it seems they envy something in each other’s lives. Jess, it turns out, envy’s some of the spontaneity of her younger sister’s life. And Rory envy’s the success in Jess’s life. At one point Jess’s art agent, Anita (Maya Jackson), who we are told is a Lesbian, which doesn’t seem to matter, comes to visit and raves over Jess’s work. She is excited about her show. Then as Jess and Rory get into it, Anita gets in the middle by telling Jess she likes the ideas Rory gave her, that Jess helped create, and tells Jess that she really isn’t ready for a one-woman show, telling her to work with Rory. So that sets Jess and Rory against each other in an even more volatile way. Rory throws things and physically attacks Jess. They end up, these two very pregnant ladies, rolling around on the floor in what we are to see as a barn, with hay on the floor, with Rory threatening to kill Jess, and the audience is left to wonder how they got there. Then Aunt Barb (Nancy Robinette), makes her entrance, coming home from a trip, and sees the mess the sisters have made of her house. Nancy Robinette is brilliant no matter how small the role. She is just great to watch. Then Jess says her water broke, and to indicate that we see a shower open up above her, and the play ends. The set by Emmie Finckel is great, as are the costumes by Helen Q. Huang.

The play will be at Studio Theatre until June 16th and tickets are available online. If you do go, I urge you to read about, or see, True West, first. It at least will give you a heads up of what the play is about, and you can then compare the two for yourself.