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Sibling Rivalries

Two Plays Explore the Contentious Relationships Between Brothers And Sisters

Surreal Sewing Circle: (clockwise from left) Janise Whelan, Lydia Real, Loandra Torres, and Nia Graham gab and gestate.

By John Barry | Posted 8/9/2006

Sod; The Return of the 5th Sister

By Mark Squirek; By Kimberley Lynne

At the Mobtown Theater through Aug. 19

The Mobtown Players’ two Baltimore Playwrights Festival offerings are antithetically juxtaposed. Mark Squirek’s Sod is about three brothers who drink beer, curse prolifically, and lay sod. Kimberley Lynne’s The Return of the 5th Sister features four sisters who sit around inside, wear hair nets, and talk a lot about their prospective husbands, their periods, or whatever else comes to mind.

I kind of understand the guy’s play. Three brothers get out there on a hot summer day in the Baltimore burbs working on the family business. One of them, T (Shaun Gould), is responsible and religiously inclined; he’s also kind of a crapper as well. The oldest one, Bill (Steve Kovalic), is the slacker; he had a future in med school but wound up using his access to the Hopkins chem lab to manufacture LSD and then got arrested after giving out a bad hit. The third brother, Ed (well played by Jake Rothermel), the peacemaker, is left trying to keep the two other brothers from getting in fights. He doesn’t succeed, but you can’t help liking the guy.

Squirek’s play is unevenly performed--too many of the lines get swallowed--but he gets credit for creating a dynamic between the three characters that outlasts the plot line. The somewhat hypnotic pace--characters roll out sod, then talk about family issues or unwanted pregnancies--works better than anticipated, especially under Ryan Whinnem’s direction, which gives it an otherworldly, ominous tint as the sun moves down on the horizon. A young child who witnesses the whole encounter appears to be fascinated by the process, although he doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Neither does the audience.

Lynne’s Return of the 5th Sister gives more pause for thought, but it lacks a rigid story line with a clear climax and immediate resolution. That’s probably the point: Time is flexible, plot is circular, revolving around female biological cycles. The central characters are sisters struggling with their own femininity in a male-dominated religious community. It’s difficult to tell when it occurs. Prudence (Janise Whelan), the oldest sister, is going through hot flashes. Charity (Nia Graham) is a younger girl trying to keep herself pretty for the elders. As Hope, Lydia Real is a small, funny girl who stares out the window, where their fifth sister, Eve, has returned and is standing outside the house, expanding rapidly. Strange things are happening.

For one thing, the corn, wheat, and apples are all growing. The cows are milking at a furious pace. Squares of paper are dropping from the trees, with poetry scribbled on them. Charity suddenly becomes pregnant, and within a few hours she’s ready to deliver. The absent men, referred to as "elders, over yonder," are getting swallowed up by the corn.

This reviewer felt a little excluded from the target audience, but whatever, it was an interesting and original foray into feminine self-realization. The surreal time warp, especially at the beginning, grabs you, and the acting is well coordinated. Lynne takes chances with the poetic tone of the work, and it bears fruit. If there’s a problem, it’s the overlong periods of exposition--when, having looked out at the fields, with the men getting swallowed up by corn, the four women wonder what it all means. Metaphors are for the audience to figure out, not the actors.

Thematically, the two plays definitely belonged in the same night, but at two hours and 45 minutes the evening is just too long. So once again, the question returns. Who is the Baltimore Playwrights Festival for--playwrights or a curious public?

Fact is, at present the BPF doesn’t do much to attract outsiders. It’s not because of low quality: There’s plenty of crap at the popular High Zero and Maryland Film festivals. And it’s not because people aren’t willing to take chances on unknown playwrights. At Washington’s Capital Fringe Festival, which concluded last week, more than 17,000 tickets were sold in two weeks, and they weren’t all to friends and critics.

So here are some unsolicited suggestions. First, one play per person. People like to browse plays at playwright festivals, not oeuvres. Second, improve the web site. It should offer the chance for audience members--aside from critics--to submit their immediate, unfettered reactions. Third, time limits. Forcing people to sit through three hours of one-acts by unknown writers is going to push casual viewers out the door forever. Fourth, squeeze the festival into a shorter time frame by compressing the runs of plays. Two and a half months isn’t a festival. It’s a long, hot summer.

Yes, 25 years of unbroken productions is quite an accomplishment, and much of it is because of a small core of dedicated playwrights. They should keep holding down the fort, but let in a few more barbarians. There’s an audience out there that, with active encouragement, would add to the festival’s size and excitement.

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