Declan Hassett’s “Sisters” is lodged somewhere between a genuine thespic tour de force and one of those superbly crafted monologues playwright Allen Bennett wrote, and produced under the collective title, “Talking Heads.”
Two monologues, actually, since Irish theater veteran Anna Manahan, who won a Tony Award for her performance in Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” delivers a rich, complicated double portrait of a pair of lonely, embittered sisters from County Waterford, which, as it happens, is the actress’s home ground.
Before the intermission, Manahan is Martha, the stay-at-home older sister, frustrated and isolated, father-fixated and intensely resentful, a sad woman whose personal life never really began.
After the break, she is Mary, 11 months younger than her sibling, a stiff-backed careerist with enough gumption to have left the family’s four-room cottage and become a Dublin schoolteacher, complete with a Morris Minor of her own.
The farthest from the Clooney family hearth that Martha ever ventured, it seems, is to have held a job in the village store near their home. Her icy mother’s comment on that employment, delivered with glee by her favored daughter, Mary, was “Anyone can sweep a floor.”
Stuart Marshall’s simple but eloquent set design thrusts a pathway of raw planks from an open doorway to the very edge of the stage, with a worn chair and a tiny table for Martha, and for Mary a slightly more elegant chair, and a drop-leaf table on which a tea set rests. There’s nothing more, except for an expanse of sky visible when the door is open, which it is through the play’s first half.
The Clooney father, a farmer with a small holding, died when Mary was just 10 years old. The farmer had slept with a barmaid named Eileen, and when the mother found out about it, she never spoke to her husband again, until he died of a heart attack “weeding a field.”
The Clooney marriage was a cold and loveless affair from the outset. Neither daughter can remember ever having heard a warm or affectionate word pass between their parents, even before their father’s affair with the barmaid, which turned the couple’s relationship to deep, angry ice.
Their parents’ stony relationship clearly led to the cold, thwarted state of the emotional lives of both Martha and Mary.
Playwright Hassett retired as arts editor of the Irish Examiner in 2004, after working for the paper for 42 years. His long journalistic career
has equipped him with a good eye for the details of human behavior, and actress Manahan does a fine job of getting them across. The actress, who is no longer in the first blush of youth, is required to hold the stage for just under two hours, apart from a 15-minute intermission, allowing time for the meek, grudge-bearing Martha to morph into the sleek, superficially self-possessed Mary.
Martha’s speech patterns are still those of the farm town in which she was raised, a dying village which no longer boasts its own post office and from which the railway station has been removed, while Mary’s tones reflect not only the education she’s acquired, but the years she’s spent in Dublin, as well.
Hassett’s carefully detailed character study begins to wobble a bit, just moments before it ends. At this point, the journalist-turned-dramatist appears to borrow a leaf from the plays of Martin McDonagh, resulting in a jarringly melodramatic ending.
In 2004, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote “The Burial at Thebes,” an adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” as his contribution to the Abbey Theatre centenary celebration. The New York-based Handcart Ensemble, under the direction of J. Scott Reynolds, has mounted an innovative and imaginative production of the show, featuring a multitasking cast of seven actors. The show is playing through Sept. 23, at the Salvation Army’s Theater 315, 315 West 47th St., NYC. For tickets, visit www.smarttix.com, or call (212) 868-4444.
With fine performances and bare bones staging, the Boomerang Theater Company’s production of “Anna Christie” captures the spirit of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 romantic melodrama. Director Cailin Heffernan has assembled a terrific cast, particularly Jennifer Larkin, as a sympathetic and suitably bruised Anna, and Aidan Redmond as the stalwart and powerful seaman, Matt Burke. Redmond’s performance, in particular, has a strength and presence fully equal to that displayed by Liam Neeson, who starred in the 1993 Broadway revival. The show runs through Sept. 24, at Center Stage, 48 West 21st St., 4th floor, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 352-3101.