Sister Sister takes sibling rivalry to torturous new level

Sister Sister GigCity EdmontonNorthern Light Theatre is often way out there on the edge.

Under the adventurous guidance of its artistic director Trevor Schmidt, it has become Edmonton’s most challenging theatre company – constantly probing human relationships and demanding intelligence, commitment and an open mind. It hasn’t always worked, but mostly it has – winning awards and giving us some memorable evenings. Schmidt must spend many hours poring over alt-theatre plays from all over the world each year and his productions are carefully chosen to feed his theatre’s unique vision.

Northern Light’s latest is Sister, Sister – a world premiere, is written by Boston’s Barbara Blumenthal-Ehrlich, one of the busiest of alternative theatre playwrights in the United States. She says she grew up in a very quiet and supportive family – but you’d never know it from this often blistering, dark, highly emotional and often quite funny exploration of family dysfunction.

As anyone who has a sister can attest (or who has observed sisters close-up), the relationship can be highly strung. Love and hate are often just a glance or experience away, emotions kindled by years of shared contact. And events that were felt very strongly when we were young are often remembered differently with the passage of time.

“It’s safe to come back, mom is dead” is the message that brings together the sisters Janice (Louise Claire Lambert) and Dirdra (Arielle Rombough) after 15 years of distance and hostility. Something not immediately revealed happened in their late adolescence that tore them apart, and has lain festering between them ever since. The enmity between the two is real, as evidenced by the seething fury of Blumenthal-Ehrlich’s dialogue. They seem united only by a shared hatred of their mother. At first, Dirdra cannot even enter the house which carries so many memories that still hurt.

Slowly, in dramatic fits and starts with many power shifts and startling surprises, their tortuous stories begin to reveal themselves. They both have careers and new lives, but there has been little healing. And over it all hangs the spectre of mother – an enclosed, unfeeling zombie from their youth.

Sister Sister GigCity EdmontonJanice is unforgiving. “I want to see her dead lifeless body,” she proclaims. She’s desperately searching for “one good memory” – the mother behind the eyes of the mother she knew.

The play takes some ingenious and surprising turns from there.

Schmidt’s fingerprints are all over this vivid, heartfelt production – from his claustrophobic ’60s set with shag carpet going up the walls, forcing the sisters into a stifling room, to the electrical current he pumps into his two leads. The director has dressed the two in much the same costumes, with their same shoulder length hair and owlish glasses, you are immediately struck at how alike they look. Lambert is brittle and unyielding (with a slight Valley Girl accent). Rombough, the one who stayed behind to look after mom – “we just got into a rhythm and that rhythm became our life” – is searching for something that was left of her sister when she just disappeared one day. While the two are cut from the same cloth, they are wildly different in temperament as they simultaneously reach out or push each other away.

What an acting duel these two fine actresses give us – dipping, with probing intensity, into the primal forces that shape a family – even one as askew as this.

Not to forget that the production is billed as a dark comedy, director and cast manage to find some solid nuggets of humour in the midst of all that pain and angst.

Sister, Sister plays in the ATB PCL Studios of the Arts Barns through November 5.