Uneven destinations plague ‘Sister Cities’

“Why do it yourself when a man can do it for you?”

So says Mary, the matriarch in The KU Theatre’s production of “Sister Cities.”

Written by Colette Freedman and directed by Nicole Hodges Persley, the play takes place in the living room of Mary – the mother of four daughters, each named for the locale in which they were born. Mary’s suicide brings them all home, and most of the play follows their time together. Taking place in the space of one afternoon, the story is at once a funeral, a family reunion and an information session on ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which is why Mary committed suicide.

A play about the modern family, “Sister Cities” explores the relationships of sisters amid the troubles of disease, divorce and social expectations. Despite good, sometimes even exceptional execution by the cast and crew, the production suffers heavily from its unoriginal script.

The play is character-centric. The five-woman cast represents a sampling of different female types typical in today’s pop culture. Among them are a successful but divorced lawyer, a rebellious student and a family-oriented schoolteacher. Each character always talks from the perspective of her stereotype: The lawyer is full of court jargon, the student rails on society and the schoolteacher offers the perspective of a 5th grade classroom. If the play were a comedy, these roles might assist in the humor. But in a production attempting to portray a realistic version of a family, the structured and straightforward characterization subtracts from the play’s depth.

The diversity of these characters makes for witty banter, however, and the actresses do a good job of working with what they’ve got. Jeanne Averill plays Mary, the mother of the four daughters, spry and defiant despite being almost completely paralyzed because of ALS. Sprawling in her chair and barking witticisms, she adds energy to the production. Lizzie Hartman, Claire Vowels, Danielle Therese Cooper and Julie Miller effectively play the four sisters. They have talent; it would be interesting to see this quartet mingle in another production.

No tall demands are made of the costuming, lighting or set, but each area delivers more than expected. There is little action in the play, and a good set prevents this from being a detractor. The set creates a dynamic space, if populated only by the couch, the liquor cabinet and the bathroom. The women stomp around, going from cabinet to bathroom to couch.

Sometimes the mood is akin to a sleepover: “We should play Scrabble and order pizza!” They play board games in their pajamas while the body of their mother sits in a bathtub in the next room. At other times, the daughters bicker about their own lives and the lives of each other, and accuse each other of various shortcomings. Gyrating between these moods makes it difficult to concentrate on either.

It is also hard to decipher to what extent the play attempts to call attention to ALS. The mother’s affliction, as well as the possibility of the daughters also having the disease, influences the play. But the main focus is on the daughters’ character development. In the midst of all this, ALS seems to be more of a side note, despite receiving much attention in the program’s Director’s Note.

In the end, the production feels scattered, conflicted and safe. We go to the theater to be challenged, to be entertained or even to be tormented, if it’s poetic. The cast and crew at University Theatre are talented. A brainier, riskier play might let them shine.