Does anything say family reunion like Mom lying dead in the bathtub, wrists cut and naked? Surely there are more appealing sights when you come rushing in the house to use the bathroom, but for the four estranged half-sisters of Colette Freedman's Sister Cities, it takes something really jarring to make a point. Like poisoning your sister to educate her about how horrible a disease like ALS is, so horrible, in fact, that you had to kill your own mother (more accurately, "assist," but who's counting?). It's important to put these two plot points right on the table, as without them, the Baxters could be any family, with their in jokes, shared memories, years of gripes, and playful bickering. And the Baxters are not any family: they are specifically the product of a somewhat neglectful mother, Mary (Judith Scarpone), who couched all of her most memorable advice in men-snaring rhymes, advice garnered through four different marriages, and more than a few states.
They are of the uptight lawyerly sort, like Carolina (Ellen Reilly), who is successfully unhappy, or of the upright motherly sort, like Dallas (Emberli Edwards). They are sister cities, each named (and eerily like) the place where they were born, like Austin (Maeve York), the published author drowning in expectations, or Baltimore (Jamie Neumann), the radical contradiction who dresses like a trailer park slut but goes to Harvard, jumping from one "-ology" to another. But most importantly, Mom's upstairs, dead and naked in the bathtub, as I believe I mentioned earlier, and Austin's the one who assisted her suicide, a small fact that the stern and moralizing Carolina can't quite get past.
Colette Freedman uses this ethical point to dissect true family values, forcing lines to be drawn and giving clear reasons for confrontation (more than an argument over, say, the placement of the word "zooerastia" in Scrabble). At the same time, she is able to progressively tease out the seriousness of the situation, which gives director Cat Parker plenty of time to establish the on-again-off-again camaraderie between the sisters. George Allison's scenic design is a great asset in this, with a deep and fully-functional den that stretches hallways behind the audience and builds stairways that function as escape hatches when the emotion gets too stifling.
The one gripe with Sister Cities is that it has also built escape hatches for the audience. Freedman's comedy serves a purpose: it works as a delayed fuse for the dynamite revelations. But her drama is broken up first by the divide between acts, and then by an unnecessary scene between Mary and Austin that all but forces us to agree that assisted suicide is a mercy. (As with the whole play, this scene is well acted; it's just already implied.) Furthermore, the play takes on a weighty attitude while going through these motions, using heavy-handed metaphors (literally pulling legs off spiders) that seem out of character with what we've already heard described. A better tact would be to make us think more on our feet, siding with one character, then with another, then, at last, torn between the two, trying to reach some cathartic resolution. It's not that any of Freedman's choices are bad ones -- they're dramatic in their own right. They just could cut so much deeper.
Then again, Sister Cities is a family play, or at least a play about a family, and there's something to be said for presenting difficult topics through cream-colored lenses, especially when the final product is still highly entertaining.