Theater lovers – do not miss Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, now playing at Church Hill Theatre.
The play was originally produced in Seattle in 1992, then moved to New York’s off-Broadway Mitzi Newhouse Theater at the end of the year, and after 149 performances, reopened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, where it ran for an additional 549 performances. It was nominated in practically every possible category of the major awards, winning in many. It was a Tony Award nomination as best play of 1993, and won the Outer Critics Circle Award as best play that same year.
Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the New York production featured Jane Alexander, Madeline Kahn and Christine Estabrook in the three title roles. Kahn won the Outer Critics Circle and Tony awards as best actress, and the Drama Desk award as best featured actress, while Alexander took the Drama Desk award for best actress. And Sullivan was recognized as best director by the Outer Critics Circle. The play also brought Wasserman the William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Theater.
Built around three Jewish-American sisters whose lives have gone in dramatically different directions, the play is set in the oldest sister Sara’s London home, where she is about to celebrate her 54th birthday. A banking executive, she is in many ways the most successful of the trio. Visiting to join in the celebration are her two sisters, one a travel journalist, Pfeni, whose home is wherever there’s a good story. The third sister, Gorgeous, is a suburban Boston housewife who’s become a star giving advice on a local talk radio. They are joined by various friends and boyfriends, each of whom embodies a different aspect of their lives. As the celebration moves along, it becomes clear that Merv, a friend of one of Pfeni’s boyfriends, has fallen for Sara.
There are plenty of laughs to be had throughout the evening, but at bottom this is a play with a very serious focus. Wasserstein described her play’s subject as “being Jewish,” and there is a large element of that onstage – notably with Gorgeous, the most devout of the trio, who has come to London with her rabbi and a group of women from their synagogue. But the others are also keenly aware of their heritage – even the atheistic Pfeni describes herself at one point as “the wandering Jew.” And the plot, rather than a series of “dramatic” events, is basically a story of self-definition and discovery – as all the main characters go through some sort of epiphany during the course of the play. All three sisters have rebelled in different ways against their mother and their traditional upbringing. Sara’s teenage daughter Tess is carrying on the tradition, resisting her mother’s plans for her and trying to chart her own path.
Director Shelagh Grasso has brought together a strong cast, with no weak performances. This is especially true of the three lead roles, the sisters for whom the play is named. The sisters clearly love one another despite their very different personalities and different choices in life; one of the play’s most affecting scenes is when the three sit together on Sara’s couch, drinking wine and enjoying a rare chance to just be together.
Colleen Minahan, who appeared last year with Shore Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is outstanding in the role of Sara, who on the surface is the most successful and fulfilled of the sisters. She speaks with a British accent and considers America to be in serious decline. Minahan gives the character–who at first seems distant and even snobbish–an element of tenderness that comes out as we follow her relationship with her family and others in her life.
Melissa McGlynn, well known to Garfield Center audiences, plays Pfeni, the peripatetic journalist just in from Bombay and on her way to who knows where? McGlynn does a good job of conveying her character’s high-energy, unconventional lifestyle. She arrives at Sara’s home with a half-dozen shopping bags that Pfeni uses instead of luggage. And when later, the character reveals a more conventional inner core, McGlynn conveys that change convincingly. An excellent performance by one of the stars of the local theater community.
Jen Friedman is perfectly cast as Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum – the role could have been written for her. Yet as funny as the character can be, Friedman doesn’t let us forget that Gorgeous is real, with problems and desires that go beyond the easy laughs to make her a sympathetic human being. A wonderful performance with absolutely fabulous fashions! Gorgeous wears hot pink and longs to own a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes.
John Haas gives an engaging performance as Merv, the New York furrier who falls for Sara. Successfully carrying on the business that his father and grandfather established, he can joke about the new era when some customers object to real animal fur — and how he has adapted to this with “artificial animal skin” coats. Hass effectively projects the character’s openness and honesty — and his vulnerability as a recent widower. Haas portrays both Merv’s warmth and strength as a man who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.
John Schratweiser of Kent County Arts Council is hilarious as Geoffrey, a bisexual London theater producer. Returning to the local stage after several years working on the western shore, Schratweiser brings a facility both with physical schtick and polished delivery of lines to the part. It’s good to see him back on the boards – let’s hope this is the first of many new roles for him.
Bob Chauncey takes the role of Nick, a supercilious Englishman who looks somewhat askance at the sisters’ American roots. According to the director, he came on board for the play with minimal rehearsal – it certainly doesn’t show. A very nice performance in a small part.
Tess, Sara’s daughter, is played by Shannon Whitaker. Tess is getting ready for her first year of college, to be spent at a proper British university – but she has a strong streak of social activism, and wants to go to Lithuania to take part in that country’s break away from the collapsing Soviet Union. Whitaker is convincing as a rebellious teenager who comes to realize there’s more to her life than rebellion.
Nick Carter plays Tess’s working-class boyfriend Tom, who is dedicated to the cause of Lithuanian freedom. A good job in a part that’s full of one-liners, and an especially nice job with the character’s accent.
The set, representing Sara’s living room, was designed by Grasso and her husband Carmen. Carmen Grasso and Tom Rhodes built the set. As we’ve come to expect of CHT sets, it’s absolutely spectacular, with its elegant ten-foot tall white pillars conveying the essence of Sara’s posh lifestyle.
Costumes are very well done. The characters wear basically what one would expect the characters to be wearing some 25 years ago in London – ranging from Geoffrey’s dance in his underwear to Nick’s correct formal evening wear and Tom’s scruffy t-shirt and jeans, topped off by a Mohawk hair-cut. The three sisters’ personalities are shown in their fashion choices–with Sara appearing in expensive business dress, elegant silk robes and white tennis togs while free-spirit Pfeni wears casual, flowing, almost-hippie attire. And Gorgeous is gorgeous in bright colors with scarves and jewelry to match. Kudos to the costume crew.
Grasso has brought out strong performances from the entire cast, and the play is a wonderful testimony to the strength of the local theater community. Adult situations and language may make this production inappropriate for the very youngest theatergoers, but everyone else should make it a point to see it.
The Sisters Rosensweig continues through Sept. 23, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 apiece for the general public, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. Call 410-556-6003 or visit churchhilltheatre.org to make reservations.