Review: SISTERS (at Soulpepper)

by Lynn on September 1, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Rosamund Small

Based on the Edith Wharton novel Bunner Sisters

Directed by Peter Pasyk

Set by Michelle Tracey

Costumes by Erika Connor

Lighting by Kimberley Purtell

Sound and music by Richard Feren

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Cast: Kevin Bundy

Laura Condlln

Raquel Duffy

Ellora Patnaik

Nicole Power

Karen Robinson

Beautifully written, stylishly directed and wonderfully acted.

 The Story. New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  Ann and Evelina Bunner are two devoted sisters. Ann is the eldest of the two. They are seamstresses who struggle to run a shop in New York City. They make artificial flowers and other small items. They also sell buttons and ribbons. Evelina is the more gifted seamstress of the two. Ann keeps the books and makes sure all the items in the shop are in pristine order.

Ann buys a clock in a quirky shop from Ramy, for Evelina’s birthday. There is instant rapport between Ann and Ramy. Ramy is a German clock maker who had worked at Tiffany’s before going into this little shop. Ann is so charmed by him that she finds an excuse to see him again by deliberately damaging the clock and asking him round to her shop to fix it. When he meets Evelina there is instant rapport between them too. Ann is aware of that. The introduction of Ramy into the sisters’ well ordered lives changes everything.

It’s obvious to Ann that Evelina hopes Ramy proposes to her. Ann steps aside for her sister to be happy. As usual, life does not work out as we want it to.

The Production.  Director Peter Pasyk has directed a stylish, spare but richly textured production. The relationship of Ann (Laura Condlln) and Evelina (Nicole Power) is close, loving but not overtly affectionate. These two characters are of their time—the early 1900s—decorum is everything.  As Evelina, Nicole Power is youthful, enthusiastic and free-wheeling but not in a disruptive way.

Michelle Tracey has designed a set of a framed outline of a house-building in which is the simple store-living quarters of the sisters. A moveable counter with all their ribbons and buttons is downstage right.  A narrow bed is stage left. It speaks volumes about the poverty of the sisters that they both sleep in that bed.

Actors make entrances and exits to the shop by walking ‘through a wall’ (there is no need of a door frame) with the sound of a bell accompaniment. Nothing fancy. The audience just imagines the doors etc. Richard Feren’s sound is evocative and spare and the music selections are beautiful.

As Ann, Laura Condlln is always gracious, accommodating, contained and smiling. As the older sister she comports herself with a quiet dignity. But as the tensions and emotions rise, when Ann is frantic to learn what has happened to her sister after she marries and moves away, Condlln is simply astonishing. Condlln plays Ann with tightly-controlled emotion. You see her desperation to find her sister, but Ann can’t lose control, interestingly that desperation is passed on to the audience. That’s a good thing.

Condlln also uses the power of a smile that says so much here—it conveys charm, confidence and covers intense embarrassment, certainly in the last gut-wrenching scene.

Kevin Bundy as Ramy has the rumpled charm of a man who just wins over women who want to take care of such a courtly fellow. Karen Robinson as Mrs. Mellins has that perfect timing to nail a simple laugh-line, and she does it every single time. It’s a lovely performance

Comment.  Edith Wharton usually wrote of the upper class in her many books about society in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Her novella, “Bunner Sisters”, (note there is no “The” in the title) is different. It’s about the almost desperate poverty of the Bunner sisters who run their shop. They make do eking out their living until matters do get desperate.

Wharton had a rich, descriptive style. In her adaptation Rosamund Small is spare in her dialogue but it’s the silences, what is not being said, that also carries the weight of description. Peter Pasyk’s careful direction is a perfect companion to illuminate the piece.

I heard someone call this play a melodrama. I don’t think it’s as simplistic or pjorative as that. If anything Sisters is a psychological thriller about the confines of society in the early 20th century, about the familial ties that bind families. So while we mainly see the intensity of Ann’s feelings for her sister and her desperation to find her, we also get the sense that both sisters are clasped together by a tight, invisible bond.

I liked this production and play a lot, and will get me to read more Wharton.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Opened: Aug. 29, 2018.

Closes: Sept. 16, 2018.

Running Time: 90 minutes

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