Fateful journey in new WAM play

By Jeffrey Borak, Berkshire Eagle Staff
Friday October 28, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

PITTSFIELD

For Berkshires actress Karen Lee, playing Jelly in the upcoming WAM Theatre production of “The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls” cuts close to the bone.

Jelly is the youngest of the three Fine sisters, an artist with a passion for boxes who thinks outside the box, an eccentric who is consistently misread and underestimated by her older siblings.

“It’s like that for me in my own family,” Lee said during a pre-rehearsal interview at the Spectrum Playhouse in Lee. “I’m the youngest of three. I’m free-spirited and I’ve always been underestimated.”

“It turns out that Jelly is the straightest of the three,” says Kristen van Ginhoven, the play’s director and artistic director of WAM Theatre.

The other two are Jojo (Barbara Cardillo), the oldest, a university professor obsessed with German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and Jayne (Deann Simmons Halper), a bisexual predatory corporate exec.

The production — which explores the dynamics among the estranged siblings as they come together in the attic of their recently deceased father’s house to sift through his belongings and memorabilia — officially opens next Friday evening at 8 at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2, where the comedy is scheduled to run weekends through Nov. 20. There’s a preview Thursday, also at 8 p.m.

In keeping with WAM’s mission, a portion of the proceeds of the entire run will be donated to a local service organization, in this case Berkshire United Way Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative.

Collectively written by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross, “The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Girls” was a big hit in the writers’ native Canada when it premiered in 1995 at Theatre Columbu in Toronto.

“It had productions all over the country,” said van Ginhoven, a Canadian by birth. “It was all the rage when I graduated theater school in Canada.”

Van Ginhoven had all but forgotten the play until she found it by chance on her bookshelf. A play she says she’s wanted to do, it seemed the perfect contrasting choice, she said, to follow WAM’s inaugural production, “The Melancholy Play,” earlier this year.

The intermissionless “The Attic ” shows the Fine sisters as both their younger and adult selves.

“The transitions are very quick,” van Ginhoven said. “There are no set changes. They go quickly between their younger selves and their adult selves.”

It’s a fateful journey for the Fines.

“As children, being raised under the same roof, they naturally were always together,” van Ginhoven said. “As adults, they have virtually no contact with each other. But there are some things you can’t change in a family. They still know how to push each other’s buttons.”

One of the major challenges for Halper has been to clarify the differences between her character, Jayne, as an adult and as her younger self.

“I’ve been looking at her repression, her relationships, especially with her sisters, how those relationships have changed [or not changed] over the years,” Halper said.

Among the issues in the play is the tension between Jelly and Jojo over which one was dad’s favorite.

“I know I’m not,” Halper said of Jayne, “and that’s what’s so frustrating.”

“I’ve always believed I was his favorite,” said Cardillo, whose Jojo shared a love of books with her father, who was a physics professor.

But it’s Jelly who tended their father — virtually alone with the exception of Hospice — in his final months. It’s Jelly who ministered to him, cared for him, was given power of attorney.

“This play really has resonated for me,” Cardillo said. “I have a brother. We have separate viewpoints, differing world views. We’re redefining ourselves, our relationship and that’s the principle issue among the Fine sisters.”

“The Attic, The Pearls and Three Fine Sisters” is the result of three years of writing, rewriting, tweaking, fine tuning, improvising dialogue, much of which wound up in the finished play, according to van Ginhoven, who discussed the play with one of the writers as she was beginning work on it.

While the five collaborators have since gone on to individual careers in theater and performance, there is talk among them, van Ginhoven says, of writing a sequel that would pick up the Fine sisters 10 years after the events in
this play.

Van Ginhoven is hopeful the play will resonate not only with female and male siblings but also with those who have never had siblings.

“My father used to say that family feuds are a waste of time,” van Ginhoven said. “The play talks about our ability to see the other side, to find the lightness.

“I’m hoping that people who see our production will feel they’ve been invited, included, made part of a communuity; that they’re not just observers, witnesses. They are participants.”