A new work by John Kolvenbach, “Sister Play”, is having it’s premiere engagement as I write this, at The Harbor Stage Company in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. A provocative piece, it examines a relationship not often explored in theatrical form (unless you count the film, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”: don’t; or Genet’s drama, “The Maids”: do).
As a psychotherapist, I see, among other clients, a twin sister; one of female triplets; the middle child of ten, the fourth of seven females; the younger of two adopted sisters, not biological. These are complicated relationships, and often the hierarchy pre-ordains the dynamic: the job of being a 3rd parent can fall onto the elder female’s small shoulders; or sometimes a sister becomes a “best friend”.
In last night’s production, the older sister, “Anna”, has assumed a caretaker role, years before we arrive at the dilapidated family get-away. The younger sibling, “Lilly”, is thirty-three years old, “Anna”, late thirties; their parents are deceased. The older child feels compelled to protect her younger sister; she experiences her as fragile and incapable of looking out for herself (think “Laura” in “The Glass Menagerie”). “Anna” worries about her being taken advantage of, particularly by the opposite sex. She becomes positively feral when she senses “Lilly” is being threatened.
Her overprotectiveness, like that of the media-labeled “tiger-mom”, renders her sister almost helpless; she perceives her as naive and gullible. Like the drone parents of today, she robs her sibling of the opportunity to makes her own mistakes, and deal with the consequences. “Anna” is controlling to the point of rage, when she doesn’t get her way. Even setting the table for an expected dinner guest becomes a battle of wills.
As an aside, both characters might benefit from reading, “You’re Wearing That?”, Deborah Tannen’s substantive but wry treatise on the mother / daughter connection. No wonder “Lilly” is encouraging her brother-in-law to give “Anna” a baby: this will take the pressure off of her. But heaven help that child if it’s born with a vagina.
“Lilly” is an able-bodied, droll, sexily off-center female, who wears what appear to be someone else’s jeans. “Anna”, however, is all angles, asexually wardrobed, neck to ankle, in pleated trousers and pert “Peggy-Madmen” blouse. Her large eyes and white teeth, magnified by a perfect tan; her severe hair and elevated cheekbones; her long-legged stride and accusing shoulders, all announce a force of nature, before she ever opens her mouth. She is the mom figure who says, “I am doing this for your own good”. They are a classic pair (in the audience, two sisters in their sixties stood at curtain call, applauding the one hundred and twenty minutes they had just witnessed and, obviously, related to). This play strikes a primitive chord.
I too have a younger sister. She too is sixty. Because she was born with a developmental disability, she feels about ten. The “sister rules” don’t seem to apply to us at first. I protect her because I want to; and it is mandated by the state. Like all of us, she has made mistakes, the result not always positive. Like many a female, she has been unlucky in love. Like many a female, she has been sexually assaulted. She too, like “Lilly” in Mr. Kolvenbach’s well-observed play, is inordinately trusting: she has been duped out of hundreds of dollars; she has been stabbed by a housemate; she went missing for hours because a man told her, “You have beautiful eyes”.
So I am not your conventional older sister. She and I are perpetually stuck with the roles we were assigned in 1954: when I held her in the back seat of a green Oldsmobile, leaving Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. I became her playmate, protector, dance teacher, camp counselor, swim coach, Brownie leader, stylist, agent (two stints as an extra on a TV series), among other parts I have played in her life. I am her advocate; her caretaker; her best friend. I am “Anna”.