gray matter

May 23, 2010

The Gray Sisters by Craig Wright (The Pavillion, Orange Flower Water) is the latest (least?) offering from Third Rail Repertory Theatre. Commissioned specifically for the female members of the company (Stephanie Gaslin, Maureen Porter, Valerie Stevens, and Gretchen Corbett), the play is a spare 90 minutes consisting of 4 one-sided “dialogues” in which each of the Gray Sisters, in her turn, talks to an unseen, unheard character, while the other sisters sit in the dark in silence. It might be an interesting acting excercise, but it isn’t a very interesting play. That the four women are all defined by the men in their lives doesn’t help, nor does the tired abuse angle. Nothing much rings true in the script, but the four actresses give it their all.

The first “dialogue” has Gaslin playing the youngest of the sisters. She’s in a car with her father (though her air-guitar playing and general physicality don’t give much sense of the confined space) and talks at length about the significance of the Indigo Girls and her misadventures in love with an Italian grad student, and sets up the rest of the play by questioning her father about his relationship with one of her sisters. It’s all a bit obvious and ridiculous at the same time given we’re not privy to the father’s side of the “dialogue”. Yes, I can imagine what he’s saying and how he might be reacting, just as Gaslin is forced to do, but for my money, the whole point of acting is reacting, and without anyone to play off of, there aren’t many real moments to be had. And Gaslin seems too old, and her interpretation too knowing, to make the character plausible.

Leaping ahead in time, next up is Maureen Porter as Pam, the lesbian sister. The invisible father from the first scene, Pam’s step-father, has recently committed suicide (remember, the youngest daughter questioned him about his relationship with one of her sisters  – guilty), and Pam, doing yoga (why?) confronts her mother, who is packing to move into a retirement home, with the truth about her dead husband’s abuse. Pam screams expletives at her mother throughout and finally tells her mother that she wants her to kill herself too, because that would make things better for her, Pam. Really? Do nominally sane people actually express themselves this way? And do their nominally sane mothers stand for it? Not having the mother present to respond, we’re left to wonder why this woman who just lost her husband to suicide would allow this onslaught to continue at length and end with no recrimination. Porter is a gifted actress, but she can’t make this fly.  Her emotional ferocity is impressive, but again, it’s acting in a vacuum. Who cares? And truth be told, she’s miscast. The expletive laden dialogue she’s been given doesn’t suit her, it feels forced (she and Corbett should have switched roles). She’s not an actress given to rough edges, and this “character” demands them. But then, it really isn’t a character at all – none of them are. They’re merely ideas, the contrivances of a lazy playwright.

Valerie Stevens, as the abused sister, Anya, is up next. In the previous scene we learned that Anya is married to an abusive, demeaning husband who denounces and ridicules her in front of their children and badgers and harasses her even when she’s on the phone. Yet when he’s got one foot out the door, leaving her for another woman, he stops and listens to her whine on and on about how she’s tried so hard to make it work and how she still loves him and how it’s wrong of him not let her change – it’s her right to change. All thoroughly unbelievable, yet Stevens is mesmerizing. I hate this play, but I love this actress. She’s heartbreaking and fearless. I just wish she’d been given material worthy of her talent.

Gretchen Corbett closes the show by talking to her father’s grave (NOT her sister-abusing stepfather’s grave), and reacting as if he is actually talking back to her. Crazy? Maybe, she’s lives in NYC after all (though you wouldn’t know it from what she’s wearing – very Portland, NOT very NYC) For some reason, the three other sisters are now in a clump, lit and watching her. Why? Where are we exactly? Why are they suddenly present, yet not in the scene?  And why all the gray carpeting, gray benches and gray flats? It looks like the lobby of an office building. Or does everything have to be gray because it’s called The Gray Sisters? There’s no specificity to anything, not to the direction, not to the characters, or costumes, set or soundtrack – it’s all a gray wash. I understand elegiac, but this is opacity, and clichéd at that.

Truth be told, if I were one of the female members of this company I would be pissed. The guys got to do Mamet’s iconic American Buffalo on a soaring, eye-filling set, and the women get to reinforce negative female stereotypes on a cold blank stage. There was a recent NY Times article bemoaning the dearth of quality female roles on Broadway this year while an abundance of powerful, fully realized, show-stopping male roles overwhelmed the Great White Way. Good to know Third Rail is doing their part to keep that trend alive.

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