The Gray Sisters

Do not sleep through this elegiac tour de force.

By Alexis Rehrmann May 14, 2010

Gretchen Corbett in The Gray Sisters now onstage at Third Rail Rep.

The lights went down at the World Trade Center Theater last night. In the half light onstage, four formidable actresses took their places onstage. The lights came up center stage and we are introduced to Sarah, a feisty, Indigo Girls worshiping, a college aged woman in mid-conversation with her dad.

And right then, 90 seconds into the elegantly paced 90 minute performance, the man behind me started to snore. There are two points to make about this, first, he was clearly in some sort of ailing health, and OLD, and didn’t mean to be rude.

Second, it seems a particular shame, because The Gray Sisters, a current production from Third Rail Repertory, is not something that you want to sleep through. The greatest strength of the play is a collective tour de force from these four Portland actresses.

Written by Craig Wright, The Gray Sisters was created specifically for Third Rail—the company has had a fruitful, Drammy-filled relationship with the playwright’s work, starting with their debut production of his play Recent Tragic Events—and this play was made in a collaborative process between the actresses and the playwright. The process pays off. Stephanie Gaslin, Maureen Porter, Valerie Stevens, and Gretchen Corbett, deliver—across the boards—the most centered, emotive, absolutely connected, and fully committed acting that I have seen onstage in Portland. It’s a treat to watch bare-boned craft, under good lighting, in the good company of an attentive audience (except the sleeping guy, but again, not his fault).

The Gray Sisters tells the story of four sisters who are bound together by family history and a shared wound which roots in the center of their lives even as they push outward far into adulthood. Play is written as four interlocking monologues that span maybe ten years of time. As each woman’s story is layered onto her sisters’, time and its changes become clear.

The monologues are written as one side of a conversation. So while the sisters are central to our experience of the Gray family, the women that we get to know are often fighting for their right to be heard with the specters of husbands, fathers, children, and mothers who are unseen, but close at hand.

There is a stateliness to the narrative and the set, a minimalist grouping of benches and large black panels, brings a somber, elegiac feeling to the sisters’ tales.

This effect must be intentional, and there are many echoes to greek tragedy. The fates hover above the play, starting with its title, The Gray sisters are characters from a Greek myth, three beautiful women who share an eye and a tooth between them. These four modern sisters are similarly tied together for survival and well being. And as a group, they operate as a Greek chorus, standing backlit and silent as witnesses to the others.

Again echoing the Greeks, most of the dramatic action happens offstage and is narrated in monologue–in Greek tragedy, the out-of-breathe messenger delivers the news that Oedipus has just blinded himself offstage–and a similar structure operates here, as family deaths, weddings, and divorces are announced. This creates an unexpected emotional distance for the audience and is surprising, given the emotional, explosive nature of the story, and the unflagging strength of the performances.

But The Gray Sisters is kept firmly planted by the brave performances of its four lead actresses, and the localism of the story, which is set in Portland and hand-crafted for us by Craig Wright and Third Rail Rep.

The Gray Sisters is onstage through May 23rd. Get there before its gone.

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