Sister Cities Review- An Ambitious Play About Illness, Loss, and Sisterhood

The Chicago premiere of Colette Freedman’s play “Sister Cities”, now in production by Chimera Ensemble at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee, through September 18th, is clever and often funny. It was “the hit of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival”, and has been made into a film, currently in post-production. However, the script contains too many clichés, too little action and not enough real dialogue, relying instead on a welter of self-explanation by its characters, more the province of an off-screen narrator. It’s not that the play is poorly written- it’s actually almost over-written; the plethora of revelations made about these characters lives in the 90 minutes  fails to allow time for audience assimilation let alone on-stage response or action- even the quite interesting plot twists are stated rather than acted.

Norma Chacon, Anna Donnell and Nicole Fabbri in "Sister Cities"

The premise- though shopworn- is universal and as presented here, timely and interesting- a mother’s unexpected death brings her estranged children home to confront their joint and several pasts.  Here, though, despite the earnest efforts of Chimera Ensemble members Norma Chacon, Anna Donnell, Nicole Fabbri, and Katlynn Yost as the four sisters, and a chillingly on-target take as the mother  suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) by Rainee Denham,  it never quite seems to gel, doesn’t take off- and the characters lines seem forced. Directed by Ashley Neal, with character-appropriate costumes by Gwendolyn Wiegold, well staged by Abbie Welsch, and really fine sound design by Steve Labedz, the piece simply needs some rewriting to tighten it up and bring the drama to the fore.

Anna Donnell, Katlynn Yost, Norma Chacon and Nicole Fabbri as "Dallas", "Carolina", "Baltimore" and "Austin"

Four sisters from four different fathers, supposedly different as any four women can be, but actually very similar underneath (and I’m not talking about their matching skivvies, which get too much play) meet at their mother’s house, where they were raised; she is dead upstairs in the bathtub. From there, it’s a race to beat the coroner, fueled by vodka and self-revelation- three of them learn from the sister who was there how-and when-their mother perished.

Norma Chacon, Nicole Fabbri and Anna Donnell in Colette Freedman's "Sister Cities"

To give the playwright well-deserved credit, this is not simply a woman’s piece; the admittedly over-indulged self-description doesn’t revolve much about the men in their lives. These are educated women, who are bent on making something of their lives- more than they believed their mother did in having one child each by four different husbands. However, although the actors physically and verbally tried to project themselves into their parts, there was a singular lack of believability that came across more clearly than any persona. None of the characters really seemed to suffer- none of the written-in angst producing situations actually produced anguish. While there were enough problems inherent in these women’s  lives to create a play about any one of them- the lesbian with writer’s block who lacks the courage to leave home but has what it takes to play Kevorkian; the Harvard drop-out who seems like an airhead boytoy but is  headed for the Peace Corps; the perfectly adjusted young wife and grammar-school teacher who conceals an abortion from her husband; the litigator who spouts uptight legalese but really lets her hair down with a lot of booze- they all end not so much backing each other up but backing down.

Rainee Denham as "Mary" and Nicole Fabbri as "Austin" in Chimera Ensemble's "Sister Cities"

Having said this much, the play is not dull. It’s just that watching it, one hopes for a denouement, for a blow-up, for emotional extravagance- and it never happens. One solution? See the play and participate in the post show discussions which focus on both the performance and the impact of ALS. It's a devastating illness and Chimera is impressively donating 10% of it's profits to the ALS Foundation.

Nicole Fabbri, Katlyn Yost and Norma Chacon

For information and tickets to other thoughtful productions by Chimera Ensemble, which is dedicated to storytelling that explores human behavior, go to the Chimeraensemble website.


 All photos courtesy of Tori Howard




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