Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Sister Calling My Name

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 1, 2020

Susie Duecker, Gillian Todd and John Marshall
Photo by Michael Abrams
In his author's notes for Sister Calling My Name, now running at the Sheen Center, Buzz McLaughlin describes his drama as a "memory play." Not unlike that gold standard of memory plays, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Sister Calling My Name focuses on the complicated relationship of a brother and sister and the necessary act of self-preservation by severing the strangulating ties to family and traumatic personal histories.

Sister's narrator and central character Michael (John Marshall) in fact could be the literary doppelgänger of Menagerie's Tom Wingfield. Just as Tom recounts going much further than the moon in his effort to escape the psychological and emotional grip of his sister Laura, Michael recounts his own retreat from his only sibling Lindsey (Gillian Todd). Similarly, Michael tends to address the audience with Williams-like prose, including monologues teeming with metaphors and dream imagery. Describing his family leave-taking, for example, he says, "My life can be measured in two equal parts—the years spent with her and those spent a vast distance away. She was there and then she was gone, like a dangerous growth one lives with until, for reasons of survival, it must be surgically removed."

The plot focuses on Michael's reluctant decision to reconnect with his sister after nearly eighteen years. Lindsey, who was diagnosed as an infant with profound developmental disability and schizophrenia, caused the family all manners of distress and disruption. In the intervening years, Lindsey has moved from one toxic institution to another, but she is now living in the Sisters of Mercy Home for Women under the loving care of her legal guardian Sister Mary Francis (Susie Duecker). Lindsey has also become a first-class artist, and her paintings are fetching huge prices and attracting high-profile curators for a major exhibition.

Michael is in the midst of a personal and professional crisis, and he is not outwardly impressed with his sister's accomplishments. He agrees to drop by Lindsey's new home, though, for the chance to visit Sister Mary Francis, his childhood friend and youthful sweetheart before she answered a higher spiritual calling. At the facility, old wounds are reopened, painful memories are revisited, and religious faiths are tested.

Unfortunately, the play is surprisingly unmoving and frustratingly uninvolving. Chief among the problems is the dialogue, which is simultaneously overwrought and underwritten. Michael is in an almost constant state of indignation and rage, and there is not sufficient character development to understand why he would so cruelly abandon his disabled sister. The play is infused with references to religious piousness, and there are required leaps of faith to accept that Lindsey, who is also apparently a gifted psychic, could suddenly become a prestigious painter simply because her father was. (Since the audience only sees blank pages, this takes even more unquestioned acceptance.) There is not enough character development to make Sister Mary Francis more than just a fairly typical stage nun.

The actors under the direction of Peter Dobbins work valiantly, but they have not yet plumbed the characters for varying levels of subtlety. They tend to overdo the big confrontation scenes and harrowing flashbacks. As a result, there are not enough moments of quiet reflection and compassion to show how this trio of damaged souls must inevitably reunite.

The scenic design by Daniel Prosky consists of a series of white platforms. The impression is canvas-like and allows for the fluid and artistic presentation of scenes from the characters' interweaving pasts. Yet, it is also severe in its whiteness (and this is augmented by Michael Abrams' stark lighting), and it does not generate warmth and sympathy for the characters or their plights. (Allusions to the 1990s, when the play is set, are provided by Jake Posner and Ian Wehrle who respectively designed the costumes and sound.)

The most disappointing aspect of the play's production, however, is in its principal casting decision. As Lindsey, Todd thankfully does not try to replicate in detail the visible physical traits and vocal mannerisms of a developmentally disabled woman. Doing so would have been hugely off-putting. Yet, in recent years there has been some progress in giving the many capable and talented disabled actors in New York City alone the opportunities they deserve. How disheartening then that the small ensemble does not reflect greater diversity.

Blackfriars Repertory Theatre is the main producer of Sister Calling My Name, and the company is expressly committed to "theatre dedicated to the human drama." Ideally, future productions will be more inclusive and not just in name only.

Sister Calling My Name
Through February 16, 2020
The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, 18 Bleecker St., New York City
Tickets online and current performance schedule: