Martha, as all but the most rigid biblical scholar can attest, gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. In the Gospel of Luke, while her sister fawns at Christ’s feet, Martha must perform all the household chores. When she dares to complain, Christ scolds her, saying, “Martha, Martha . . . Mary has chosen the better portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Mary must have given quite the foot rub.
Declan Hassett, an Irish journalist and playwright, takes this parable of sibling injustice as the inspiration for Sisters, a one-woman show. Anna Manahan, who won a Tony for her terrifying turn in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, plays each aged sister in turn.
After a 50-year separation, the Clooney sisters once again find themselves sharing a home. Manahan first shrouds herself in a shapeless cardigan and carpet slippers as Martha, a bitter birthday girl who “had to make the cake meself.” After intermission, Manahan dons a gray-blond wig, blazer, and refined accent and returns as Mary. Though both on the cusp of 70, the Clooney sisters gloss over the past several decades, instead recalling their girlhood and early twenties. Divided by allegiances to different parents (Mary to her frustrated mother, Martha to her philandering dad), they are further estranged when Mary wins a scholarship to teachers’ training college in Dublin. Meanwhile, Martha must live out a comically bleak existence at home—nursing her dying mother, with sweeping out the village shop her only respite.
Manahan lends spirit and nuance to each character, at home with Martha’s broad tones as well as Mary’s more posh ones. She differentiates the sisters effectively but unites them in their mutual dissatisfaction and in the surges of rage that spark behind their eyes. Hassett’s script gives ample opportunity for such displays of wrath, as he leeches the sisters’ world of joy or comfort. He bestows on each a history of loneliness, betrayal, and bitter disappointment, unrelieved by such possible consolations as husbands, children, friends, hobbies, pets, even the joy of a secret tipple (though they do seem to derive some satisfaction from irritating one another). In this play, no pleasure goes unpunished. Every cuddle is a prelude to a rape. Each sister, says Martha, “spins around in a world full of regrets about the past, afraid of the future.” Would it have killed Hassett to get his Irish up?