Review: Sister Cities, Factory Space Theatre Company

Colette Freedman’s Sister Cities, now in the hands of Factory Space Theatre Company at Star of the Sea Manly, is aptly titled. Following their mother’s death, four sisters – each named after the American cities in which they were born – come together for an unplanned family reunion which, as expected, unleashes old tensions.

The evening is something of a double bil. Sister Cities is preluded by a short and sombre Australian play, Suzanne Hauser’s If It wasn’t for the Nights. Starring Karli Gilchrist, Erin Thomas, and Kurtis Wakefield, it attempts to address similar issues to the main event (how we as a society deal with death and illness), but the short performance time  of around fifteen minutes hinders its ability to develop the characters into people we care about.

In contrast to If it wasn’t for the Nights’ tone, Sister Cities, directed here by Roz Riley, is a black comedy: the perfect vehicle to showcase the darkness and inescapable comedy of reuniting a dysfunctional family in a time of high stress. Like The Breakfast Club, a film the play explicitly references, each character is given a moment of revelation and catharsis; long held secrets and troubled emotions are finally brought to the surface.

Each sister can be summarised by labels: the uptight one, Carolina (Liz Harper), the recluse, Austin (Amy Victoria Brooks), the perfect one, Dallas (Samantha Lee) and the radical one, Baltimore (Isabel Dickson). However, Freedman’s writing fleshes out the characters into more than mere archetypes, highlighting their flaws and complexities to remind us all that for every person, there’s more than meets the eye.

For the most part, the play is entertaining, packed with relatable bickering and believable language, cutting through taboos to unwaveringly address delicate topics like euthanasia laws. Unfortunately, a plot twist inspired by Atticus Finch’s mantra “You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” pushes the previously relatable story into disappointing melodrama.

Freedman plows through themes of death, failed expectations, and disappointments. However, the inevitable and clichéd happy ending arrives, and there’s a built-in explicit need for the characters to “come to a resolution,”  which detracts from the realism of the plot – family resolutions can take years, or even never happen, and the sisters rapid harmony seems unearned.

Still, there’s a strong cast that works to pull the competing threads together into a compelling performance. Liz Harper is an excellently uptight Carolina, a lawyer who has always followed the rules, and Amy Victoria Brooks (Austin) and Isabel Dickson (Baltimore) bring a wonderful light-heartedness and humour to the stage, nicely contrasting with the other, more serious sisters. Dallas isn’t a character written to leave much of an impression, but Samantha Lee rounds her out, balancing sensitivity with stoicism, and Ros Richards gives a touching performance as the sisters’ long-suffering, manipulative mother.

It’s an age old trope to explore the reconnection of an estranged family following the death of a relative (August: Osage County is a well-known recent example). Despite its stumbles, Sister Cities is a particularly good interpretation of the genre, and this production captures the spirit of the black comedy in a surprisingly heart-warming way.

3.5 stars

Jo Bradley.

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