Family dynamics take original twist in ‘Sister Play’

The two thirtysomething sisters in John Kolvenbach’s new two-act play, “Sister Play”– now in a luminous, Magic Theatre rolling world premiere – are an interdependent pair. Lilly (an endearing Jessi Campbell) is a lost soul, involved in one dead-end romance after another. She’s been relying emotionally on her controlling, tightly wound older sister, Anna, ever since their father died years ago.

For her part, Anna (Lisa Brescia in a taut, convincing performance) can barely live her own life, she’s so preoccupied with protecting reckless, free-spirited Lilly.

The love between them is palpable, and complicated, and a little weird, which you get right from the beginning: They’ve just arrived for their yearly get-together at their father’s old Cape Cod cottage (so cluttered with books, worn rugs and mismatched furniture in Eric Flatmo’s fine set that you can almost smell the mildew), and immediately Lilly tries to pull an exasperated Anna into her lap for a cuddle.

In the middle of this odd sister sandwich is Anna’s writer husband, Malcolm, played with wonderfully nebbishy charm by local treasure Anthony Fusco.

As with the unbreakable bond between the often quarrelsome siblings, the love and ambivalence between the two spouses is fathoms deep. The trio, as we eventually see, is linked together through not just love, but also loneliness and neediness, and in this production, directed by the author, the actors form a believably tight and fragile family unit.

It’s a theatrical cliché that into a mix like this, in a remote cabin, must come a stranger, a catalyst who changes everything.

Yet Kolvenbach has managed to make of the stranger a singular character — a penniless drifter who is naive, self-sufficient, awkward and intense and speaks with a poetic formality. Patrick Kelly Jones’ portrayal, with unrelentingly stiff posture, quiet dignity and a deer-in-the-headlights look about him, is entirely original, and riveting.

There’s something Sam Shepardish about Kolvenbach’s writing, with its convoluted American family relationships and undercurrent of potential violence.

There’s also a hint of hyperrealism: When alone, each family member talks, quite naturalistically, to the dead father; when together, they sometimes converse as though speaking in subtext. All four characters, in fact, are nothing if not preternaturally self-aware and willing to reveal all.

There must be 50 ways to write a play about sisters (apologies to Paul Simon), and Kolvenbach has found a unique, and engaging, way of his own.

REVIEW

Sister Play

Presented by Magic Theatre

Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes April 19

Tickets: $20 to $60

Contact: (415) 441-8822, www.magictheatre.org

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