Who says lightning never strikes the same place twice? All MetroStage has to do is keep bringing back Three Sistahs, the foot-tapping, gut-busting and tear-jerking family drama now back in its third incarnation at MetroStage, and sparks will continue to fly. Soulful, provocative, and deeply funny, Three Sistahs fearlessly touches every nerve of dysfunctional family dynamics. Operatic in scope yet intensely personal, it is, at times, wrenching, but ultimately inspiring.
As its title suggests, Three Sistahs is loosely based on Chekhov’s masterpiece, but rather than Olga, Masha, and Irina, writer Thomas W. Jones II (who also directs) gives us Olive, Marsha, and Irene. There is little similarity between the two shows in terms of plot, yet Three Sistahs manages to retain that defining and magical quality of Chekhov: the intense, voyeuristic pleasure of peering into the private lives of regular people. What makes the realism all the more remarkable is that Three Sistahs is a musical. Composer William Hubbard provides a tremendous gospel-influenced score, which is done true justice by all three sisters (sistahs?), whose voices are as equally powerful as they are individually unique.
And of course, it is the sistahs that are the crux of the show. Olive (two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Bernardine Mitchell), the eldest, is a well-educated college professor who nurses a well honed sense of self righteousness. Marsha (Roz White) is a vivacious maybe-alcoholic who fought her way into the middle class, only to be disappointed by the drudgery of white picket fences. And the youngest, Irene (Ashley Ware Jenkins) has marched, Afro blazing, into the radical political underground of the late 1960s. Brought together by the funeral of their brother who died in Vietnam, the sisters bring a world of baggage into their old family home.
Ms. White and Ms. Ware Jenkins are both splendid vocally, and allow their characters to be passionate without devolving into caricature. But it is Ms. Mitchell who truly injects adrenaline into the show. Deftly oscillating between stony pragmatism and tent-revival expressionism, Mitchell is a force of nature on stage. She is ultimately the crystallization of everything that works about Three Sistahs, and the audience roared their approval more than once.
Although funerals and race riots are never far from the action on stage, Three Sistahs manages to be riotously funny. In numbers like “Basement Kind of Love” and “Barely Breathing,” the sisters reminisce about adolescent gropings with some, ahem, larger than life boyfriends. The comic timing is precise, and the pace of the overall show is refreshingly brisk. So when numbers like “Summer of Smoke” come along, where the sisters mournfully remember the smell of riot-burned neighborhoods, the drama is particularly touching.
Director Thomas W. Jones II moves between comedy and drama with organic grace, and few transitions seem forced. Likewise, Jones never allows the staging to become stagnant, and together with a gorgeous lighting design by Xena Petkanas, Three Sistahs is legion with elegant tableaus.
Family reunions are difficult under any circumstances, so against the backdrop of Vietnam and the 1960s Culture Wars, the gathering of the titular three sisters is primed for drama. But in real life, tragedy is always interspersed with every other feeling on the emotional spectrum, including comedy. Three Sistahs plays these all-too-human impulses like a harp. And while the circumstances on stage are very specific to this fictional family, I came home looking at my own family album a little bit differently.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.