Tall tale about sister's return stands out next to forced `SOD'


Critic's Corner//Theater


The Baltimore Playwrights Festival has produced few -- if any -- fables in its 25 years, so Kimberley Lynne's The Return of the 5th Sister is an original, odd and welcome addition.

It's also disturbing at times, as fairy tales and fables often are.

Half of a double-billed program that is jointly titled, Just Outside the Garden, 5th Sister is a fable about feminism, self-reliance and not believing the stories we are told. It is being presented at Mobtown Players.

Set in an unspecified period in the past -- the characters wear prairie dresses -- the one-act play concerns four adult sisters. Their ordered existence is upset by the reappearance of their eldest sister, Eve, who has grown "as tall as the trees."

Although Eve doesn't appear on stage, her presence is very much in evidence. When she shakes the trees in the orchard, sheets of paper fall to the ground. These pile up in the sisters' house as the play progresses, and though the pages are initially blank, words begin appearing.

The short play contains a lot of semi-cryptic references to the flexibility of time, the importance of being ready and especially to "the elders" -- men who are uncomfortable with the notion of women making do on their own. The biblical tale of Eve and original sin also figure into the proceedings.

The archaic nature of some of Lynne's dialogue, along with the strange plot, could result in stilted performances, but under Ryan Whinnem's direction, the production's four actresses deliver fresh depictions that highlight the sisters' diverse personalities.

Janise Whelan is the unflappable mother-hen figure; Lydia Real is the skeptic; Loandra Torres is the youngest and most willful, and Nia Medina proves the most open to change, as her character undergoes both physical and emotional transformations.

The sisters exemplify the kind of moral support that characterizes the strongest sibling relationships. It's a far cry from the fraying ties that connect the three brothers in Mark Squirek's SOD -- the other half of Mobtown's double bill.

The brothers work in their late father's landscape business. But the business appears to be the only thing holding them together. And, though there's much talk about being "manly" and doing "manly" work, the performances lack the sense of assurance to carry this off. In particular, as the tormented brother who runs the business, Shaun Gould never adequately conveys the anger that supposedly troubles his character.

Family businesses can have built-in drama, but Squirek lessens his play's impact by spelling out too much. For instance, he includes the character of a young boy who silently watches the dangerously dysfunctional brothers at work. From the topics of the brothers' conversation to their frequent use of profanity, there's no doubt that the boy's presence is intended as a warning about the lessons adults pass on to children. There's no need for a final ironic comment from the boy's grandmother: "When you grow up, you can be like these men."

Like Return of the 5th Sister, SOD also includes a nonrealistic element, but coming at the end of an otherwise realistic play, it feels out of place. Squirek's script contains the seeds of an involving drama, but instead of letting them germinate naturally, he forces them to bloom.


"Just Outside the Garden" continues through Aug. 19 at Mobtown Players, 3600 Clipper Mill Road. Tickets are $12. Call 410-467-3057 or visit mobtownplayers.com.

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