Sisters get no love in new play

Josette Jorge (centre) gets the upper hand over her sisters-in law Luisa Jojic (left) and Sarah Louise Turner (right).  - David Cooper photo
Josette Jorge (centre) gets the upper hand over her sisters-in law Luisa Jojic (left) and Sarah Louise Turner (right).
— image credit: David Cooper photo

The Chinese Nationalist army is fading fast in 1936 China, and one of its pillars is Captain Wong. Unfortunately he's more interested in acting than fighting, and he can't fire a gun to save his life.

Yet the Captain demonstrates a striking ability to get to the meat of Simon Johnston's Sisters, declaring early: "Conflict is not good for anything, except in drama, of course."

There's plenty of conflict to go around here. Sisters coasts from start to finish on a heavy narrative in which bad things happen to seemingly good people.

The first brush of gloom comes from the set—dark colours and a living room of faded elegance. It's exactly what the script orders. Sisters Irena and Masha, and housekeeper Anfisa, are struggling to maintain this once grand house and image of former privilege.

Their late father previously trained Nationalist Chinese troops, and as Communism spreads and all-out war with Japan looms, the sisters long to return to Moscow. Never mind the logistics, their Chinese sister-in-law Natasha eagerly deflates the sisters' spirits by taking over more and more of the house.

The furrowed brow of Irena (Luisa Jojic) comes on early and her distressed demeanour doesn't disappear. In his quest for Irena's love, Captain Wong (John Ng) tries to brighten the mood, but to no avail.

Sister Masha (Sarah Louise Turner), one of the "bees after the hive has disappeared," is equally tense, with Jack Daniel's the only thing to lighten the mood. Until she's pegged as an alcoholic.

Natasha (Josette Jorge) is the difficult sister-in-law, a one-time street urchin who is so sickly self-absorbed and delusional she's hard to watch. "Someone has to take charge of this family, and I see it has to be me," she says.

Sisters offers plenty of good performances and explores the true human impact of changing world views and the shift away from aristocracy. But the emotional terror wrought by Natasha weighs heavy here.

Playwright Simon Johnston deserves credit for arranging the world premiere of the play on his own turf. He lives here and served as artistic director at Gateway Theatre for a dozen years. That can make for high expectations.

What audiences get with Sisters is a bold new work that explores a human story a history textbook would not. Its darkness doesn't offer much to cling to, but surprises help carry this play through.


•by Simon Johnston

•On until Feb. 16 at Gateway Theatre MainStage

•Sarah Rodgers directs; Luisa Jojic, Sarah Louise Turner, Josette Jorge and John Ng star

•Tickets, $30 to $48, at 604-270-1812  or gatewaytheatre.com

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