For its latest production, Live Theatre Workshop is presenting a historical drama, complete with period costumes and personal conflicts played out against a backdrop of global events.
Since the play is Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, the time in question is 1991. The events in the background include the AIDS crisis and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but at the center is the story of three women trying to carve out their identities in an ever-changing world.
This is a fine production, with a strong cast and some wonderful performances. The play is so understated, though, and the storyline is so familiar (from countless TV dramas) that it doesn't have much of an impact.
The sisters of the title are having a reunion, of sorts, in London after the death of their mother. Sara, a successful international banker played by Carlisle Ellis, struggles to be emotionally open with her daughter. Gorgeous (Missie Scheffman) seems to have the perfect life—she's married to a lawyer, has three children and a home in the suburbs, and hosts a radio call-in show. The youngest, Pfeni (Holli Thenhaus), travels the world as a writer.
It comes as no surprise that by the end of the play, secrets are revealed; long-held grievances are aired; hearts are broken; wounds are healed; and each sister becomes a little wiser for the experience.
The play by Wasserstein (1950-2006) premiered in 1992. While it captures a snapshot of the world of 20 years ago, it also feels like something of a historical artifact. In the last two decades, plays have grown more kinetic, edgier and shorter. (The play is long enough that, when intermission arrived, several people around me thought it was over.)
The Sisters Rosensweig is resolutely old-fashioned, and director Sabian Trout clearly understands that this play has to be taken at its own tempo. Its strength is not in its plot, but in its characters, so Trout has helped her cast to develop depth and detail in their performances.
A central figure who never appears in the play is the sisters' mother, Rita, who has only recently passed away. Rita remains something of an enigma—her daughters' memories of her are inconsistent, and each of the three seems to have created a life in opposition to hers.
Ellis' Sara appears to have left her past behind. Living in London, she's given up her country, her religion and her name (choosing an ex-husband's surname, Goode). She maintains a constant vigilance against being seen as "a Jewish woman," and her relationships are either controlling or emotionally distant. Ellis isn't hard-nosed enough to be convincing as "the first woman to run a Hong Kong bank," but she is wonderfully believable as a fully dimensional woman struggling to hold the world around her in proper order. Even when Sara's motives are not clear, Ellis manages to suggest a long history beneath the surface.
Sara struggles to control her daughter, Tess (Allegra Breedlove), who is determined not to become like her mother. Breedlove has a charming and engaging stage presence, and she performs Tess as a girl who wants to be taken seriously, but has yet to face any serious heartache.
As Sara's friend, Nick, Brian Wees plays a stuffy, rather repellent British socialite to comic effect. Gabriel Gudenkauf, as Tess' boyfriend, Tom, is a charming dope who doesn't have enough going on upstairs to be taken seriously as a Lithuanian revolutionary. Both characters are less fully realized people and more props that Wasserstein uses to show her women trying to define themselves.
More complex and believable is Mervin Kant (Michael Woodson), a widower who pursues Sara with unexpected ardor. Merv represents the traditional Jewish life that Sara has tried to escape. Unlike any of the sisters, Merv knows who he is and doesn't try to be anything else. Merv seems aware that he holds power as long as he keeps talking, and Woodson uses language to push around everyone else onstage while still remaining likable. He creates clear emotional undercurrents to his character's discourses on topics like the fur trade or European anti-Semitism.
Orbiting around Sara and her various crises are the other two sisters.
Youngest sister Pfeni holds life at a distance by traveling the world without putting down roots. She's in a long-term relationship with Geoffrey (Keith Wick), a man who may be more interested in men than women.
Thenhaus and Wick are a great team. Their characters provide much of the comic leavening for the show, but the wackiness feels unforced and integrated into their three-dimensional personalities. Wick often uses his comedy to skate over thorny emotions, while Thenhaus shows Pfeni's longing for something more substantial beneath the jokes.
Gorgeous, the middle sister, is tall, blond, beautiful and ready to let everyone know how wonderful her life is. Scheffman is perfectly cast in this role, effortlessly making Gorgeous the center of any conversation while gradually exposing the strain she experiences from holding up her flawless façade. Gorgeous' arc lacks any real surprise, but Scheffman keeps her engaging.
Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The Rosensweigs, however, defy that rule. When they're in conflict, they're very familiar. It's when they're happy, though, that this family defies stereotype. Dancing, singing, clowning or cozied up on a sofa, the sisters, when they let their guard down, glow with a special kind of joy that you don't often see on the stage.
The early '90s may seem like ancient history, and The Sisters Rosensweig may have grown old as well, but those moments of joy are as fresh and beautiful as ever.