Analyzing the interactions of sisters is a bit like striking a wooden match on velvet: if there’s a spark at all, you lose it instantly only to be left in dark confusion. With the three Fine sisters, Jojo, Jayne and Jelly, it would be a waste of energy and time to even remove the match from its waterproof camper’s box. These three women, from giddy girlhood to masterly maturity, move, talk, caper and plop so quickly that it would take five stenographers capable of accurately jotting down dialogue at 135 words per minute to even approach maintaining a record of what was said by whom to whom about what and from which perspective.
Jojo and Jayne spar verbally and physically. Jelly and Jayne converge physically and mentally. Jelly is often out on a limb, with a confession hanging off her lips, unnoticed by the other two. Jojo is easily insulted and vaguely dangerous when wet. Jayne is on the fence about her personal life and her sexuality and is building a fence around her professional life. When these three come together in the family manse to attend the death of their father and then have to throw him a party as a wake all hell breaks loose in a ninety minute one-act extravaganza with a cast of over ninety people we never see but we meet in our imaginations thanks to the Fine girls.
Under the superb direction of Kristen van Ginhoven the three actresses portraying the current generation of Fines have a superb cocktail shaker and salad tosser. Van Ginhoven keeps them rattling, shaking and tossing with so much verve and vigor that the vinegar thickens with the oil and the vodka melds with the olive juice. The result on stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Stage 2 is an intoxicating melange of ingredients that are so rich and fulfilling that it really doesn’t matter that someone left the cake out in the rain. Though the play covers a week in the current time (and incidents in the past), the space never seems unoccupied and we are never left without something to ponder at the ends or beginnings of scenes.
Deann Simmons Halper plays Jayne, the middle sister, the intellectual troublemaker whose business sense is sharper than a whale’s tusk. Jayne’s interpersonal skills with her sisters is a mixed bag and Halper manages these quixotic changes of attitude with a reality that is honed and painful. She has mastered the ironic head-toss; she is in control of the one-beat pose; she can batter with her voice and caress with her smile. There seems to be little unavailable to this actress as she portrays a complex woman whose career and sexuality (straight, gay, gay, straight) are bobbing around in a tub of over-ripe apples.
She has sharp competition in the life-changes from Barbara Cardillo as older sister Jojo. Cardillo plays within the confines of the written role by stretching her words into aggressive assaults on her siblings. Her sweetness is less appealing than her bitterness and that leaves you gasping for breath. She takes Jojo to extraordinary psychotic places with ease and grace, then brings her back to a softer, safer space, an island of Jojo, a magical spot in a desert sea. It is a remarkable adventure when she reconnects with her wedding dress and a carving knife simultaneously. Both of these actresses, with all of this going on, manage to convey a picture of sisterly love that would make Chekhov’s three sisters blush with embarrassment at their own reticence in their relationship.
Taking an unusual turn in a dynamic career of outlandish characters, Karen Lee portrays the baby of the family, Jelly, with a light touch and a sweetness that may mirror a side of her she rarely exposes publicly. Here is a woman confronting the demons of a difficult childhood, the passions of a young adulthood that is unsupported by her older sisters. Lee works hard at not working hard here and the gentleness she brings forth in this character makes her the standout in a cast of superb character actors. This actress makes more out of little than anyone I’ve seen in a long while. When Jelly loses her composure and freaks out, it is with the greatest of personal pleasure tamped down with perfect humility and just a touch of shame at her own needs being revealed. If you like this actress, see this play; this is the role you will remember and measure her future work against.
Through the generosity of Barrington Stage the fine set by Juliana Von Haubrich gives these women everything they need to show the lives of these characters. Arthur Oliver’s clever costumes aid and abet the work of the company as does Ryan Winkles fight choreography. Jeff Roudabush and Nick Webb have done a beautiful job lighting this play and the superb sound design work by Brad Berridge fills in those other ninety roles without missing a trick.
WAM is still new on the scene but this current production should assure them a place in the pantheon of top-drawer theater companies in the Berkshires. Their productions have both artistic and philanthropic goals which makes them unique. Their focus on women in the arts is not exclusive but in this production no man could make much of a mark on stage against this triumphant triumvirate of women. The play is Canadian, by the way, but there is no northern exposure in this set of characters. Instead there is the hot-blood of frighteningly real women who can stand on their own six feet without the aid of Freud, Jung or Ghandi. You’ll be glad you left your therapist-ears-and-eyes at home; you’ll get more than you bargained for at this show.