The Violet Sisters

The Violet Sisters
By Gina Femia. Owl & Cat Theatre, Richmond (VIC). 17 – 27 May 2016.

The Violet Sisters is a fine example of what is almost a genre: a family’s secrets and lies.  What is told, what is withheld, what is believed and what is acted upon. That’s not to diminish the power of this play: a battle between estranged sisters, Sam (Jennifer Monk) and Pam (Leticia Monaghan). 

It plays out in real time in a battered Brooklyn apartment in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Blonde and determinedly groomed and glamorous Pam has flown in from California for her father’s funeral – about which she only learned by accident twenty-four hours before.  She arrives at dawn at what was her home eight years previously – exhausted, grimy and unannounced – and going through a horrible domestic crisis back home.  Her sister Sam springs the unexpected and unwanted intruder and very nearly bashes her.

Pam who escaped to California – where else? – is the sister who supposedly made something of herself.  Totally unglamorous older sister Sam stayed there with Dad – a near recluse, socially inept, a loser. 

Ms Monaghan and Ms Monk are terrific; their energy and presence never flag.  Ms Monaghan’s ’s Pam is frenetic, brittle, on the edge of hysteria and panic – perhaps, due to the text, a little too much too soon, but bravely not asking for the audience’s sympathy.  Her character has been fooled and duped and exploited, but Ms Monaghan plays the despair of confronting this… but then the bounce back of denial.  Ms Monk’s Sam is a thing to behold.  She takes her Sam from repellent to admirable, from mean and stubborn negativity to a different kind of defiance that negates pathos, but - as with Ms Monaghan’s Pam – maintaining the irremediable bedrock of her character.

To ratchet up the nightmare for conventional and fastidious but now bedraggled and sure-she-smells Pam, the apartment is a rancid tip (designer Josephine Wagstaff goes a little too far), the basement is flooded, there’s no power or water for a shower and the funeral is that very morning.  Sam – in her trackie daks and windcheater, immoveable, hostile, dismissive, sneering – has arranged the funeral, but has invited nobody and is refusing to go…

Any slight reservations one might have about the text are overcome by the craft of the playwright, the committed quality of the performances and the detailed, nuanced, never static direction by Sarah Vickery.  The cast and director lift the show out of mere kitchen sink naturalism and into realism: the emotions are hot and raw and arise completely believably from the situation – the sisters’ present and their histories – or what each of them believes to be their histories.

Gina Femia’s very recent text (it premiered in NY City in 2015) is a canny choice for the tiny Owl & Cat theatre.  A two-hander on one set and running a mere 70 minutes, it’s sharply focussed and concentrated; it skilfully includes and reveals the outside world and two versions of the past as well as the sisters’ unhappy present predicaments. 

Ms Femia obeys an important rule: that exposition is the past released into the present under pressure.  The play has a constant dynamic energy in the present tense.  Bits of the past are wielded as weapons, tests, confessions and explorations.  Instead of the audience waiting patiently as momentum dies while something is ‘explained’ (c.f. August: Osage County), here we hang on every revelatory word as beliefs are torn down and the audience experiences a strong but seemingly hopeless desire for these sisters to be reconciled. 

If the big reveal – that which supplies the cause for the myriad miseries which followed – is a bit predictable, it is capped by the tough-minded devastation of the final moments.  Ms Femia is no sentimentalist; she knows and isn’t afraid to depict that some people revert to type no matter what they should have learned.  So much popular culture to the contrary, people don’t change overnight or in seventy minutes as the sun rises over New York.

Michael Brindley

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