Sister, Sister

Even when consumed by sibling rivalry, one cannot deny the bond of sisterhood. Deborah Zoe Laufer pushes the connection between three agoraphobic sisters to hilarious, often touching extremes in her new play The Three Sisters of Weehawken, onstage at Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University through November 6.

The Three Sisters of Weehawken is a slimmed down, somewhat demented, modern interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In Laufer’s retelling, all the male characters have been eliminated, leaving just the sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina, and their sister-in-law, Natasha. While the women in Chekhov’s tale have textured personal lives, Laufer’s ladies never leave the house and repeat the same actions day after day. And where the Russian play takes place in the outskirts of a small town, this new iteration sets the sisters in Weehawken, New Jersey, where they long for Manhattan, not Moscow.

Elizabeth Dimon, Betsy Graver, and Niki Fridh in The Three Sisters of Weehawken. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Lab)

When The Three Sisters of Weehawken opens, it is May 5, 1958, the two-year anniversary of their father’s death and also, coincidentally, Irina’s name day. The central conceit is that it’s always May 5, the year just changes. We see the sisters in 1968, 1973, 1980, 2000, 2014, and 2016. Over these many years, the sisters don’t change much. Eldest Olga loses her job and sinks into the comfort of her chair, surrounded by a mountain of old Chinese food containers and stolen stuffed animals. Middle Masha (the only married sister) spends her days painting Irina, restricting her self-proclaimed genius to a single subject captured in black paint on a black canvas. Sister-in-law Natasha stops by every May 5 to gift Irina a pink ribbon and gently prod the sisters to change.

Youngest Irina is at first content with her simple existence, even gloating that she sleeps until 10 a.m. and doesn’t believe 6 a.m. is a real time. But when she wakes on May 5, 1980 and realizes she’s 43—not 25—she begins to yearn for more. She questions, “Is this it? Is this a life?” When the opportunity for more comes along, Irina is ready to seize it, but her sisters hold her back. So years pass, people die, the world moves on, and the sisters must come to grips with the fact that even if you do nothing, everything changes.

If all of this sounds super heavy and wrought with existentialism, don’t worry, because The Three Sisters of Weehawken is also really freaking funny. A healthy mix of absurdity and wit, this comedy balances poignancy with laughs, the hearty kind that force you to bow over in your seat and gasp for air.

Betsy Graver, Elizabeth Dimon, Niki Fradh, and Jessica Farr in The Three Sisters of Weehawken. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Lab)

This has as much to do with the cast as it does with Laufer’s smart script. Elizabeth Dimon, a favorite of the South Florida theater circuit, plays Olga, a headmistress with a thing for thievery and the most debilitated of the group. Dimon is as skilled at dry humor as she is at lunacy. Her textured performance is at once subtle and extreme, like a tamed Melissa McCarthy. She oscillates between a know-it-all persona and pathetic helplessness, quickly proving that she is the biggest setback to her sisters’ growth.

Niki Fridh is perfection as Masha, the quintessential middle child. She’s moody, self-possessed, self-obsessed, and dressed in black. When Fridh whines lines like “I reveal just a small fraction of my true self to the world and that’s all the world can handle,” you believe it. It’s enough to make you raise your hands in exaltation and yell “Preach!” She’s a great counterpart to her sisters and a frequent foil to her sister-in-law, played with spot-on deadpan by Jessica Farr.

Betsy Graver steals the show as Irina, the ballerina wannabe who sees her life slowly crumble as she waits for someone to lead her into a new existence. Graver is charming, droll, brutal, and heartbreaking. Though she enjoys the name-day attention early in the play, she becomes hardened and disgusted by the lack of purpose in her life. All three sisters claim to want to live in Manhattan, but Irina is the only one who even tries to visit. Graver captures the sorrow of feeling left behind by life, imbuing Irina with a deeply relatable sadness. There are many reasons to attend The Three Sisters of Weehawken, and Graver’s performance tops the list.

Theatre Lab is one of the best things to ever happen to the Palm Beach County theater scene, and The Three Sisters of Weehawken is its first full production. It will be very hard to top. Presented in an intimate space, the play is unassuming but assertive, with powerful performances, a thoughtful set, and a killer script steeped in theater history. And its 90-minute runtime is hard to beat, too. Yes, The Three Sisters of Weehawken is an absolute must-see.

If you go: The Three Sisters of Weehawken, Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, to November 6.

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