I don’t think so. It is ferociously bold and unvarnished and about real people, giving the audience very little distance to shelter in.
This Custom-Made Play is presented by Washington Ensemble Theatre, and their intimate space has been reconfigured to let the audience watch from either side of a Ballard house’s living room as two women try the bonds of sisterhood.
This is to good-enough Seattle theatre as HBO or Showtime productions are to network TV.
It helps that playwright Paul Mullin had the chance to write the script with his two leads in mind, Rebecca Olson and Hana Lass. They are incandescent, girlish, scheming, despondent, vengeful, charming, giddy, and careworn. Because of the play’s structural demands, they often need to switch moods in the space of a beat. They even carry off the almost sadistic task of conversing with an invisible interlocutor, at length.
The two are very talented, but even so, their success with their “younger selves” speaks to considerable skill on the part of director Erin Kraft, who has also managed, with the tricky bilateral blocking required with the audience on both sides, to counterweight the spoken goings-on with a multitude of natural interactions.
If you know Mullin’s The Ten Thousand Things or Louis Slotin Sonata, Ballard House Duet represents a right back at Albuquerque: a visceral kitchen-sink drama in aChayefskian vein. There’s nothing gimmicky to it — no overtly post-modern ironics or effects. Instead there’s a Braunschweiger sandwich, and a modern tragedy that has occurred in fragments.
You meet the sisters after their aunt has been taken to the hospital: Holly (Lass) has been trying to clean up a Hoarders-style mess, while Heidi (Olson) breezes in a week late, with a camera crew in tow, hoping that she can get some good pack-rat footage for her talk show, which seems largely to be about her. I could say they get off on the wrong foot, but it becomes clear that these two tend to wrong-foot their relations.
The plays runs forward and backward in their lives, trying to find that moment the cleavage took place, and something shattered. There’s Holly’s adoption, the death of their mother, Holly’s religiosity, Heidi’s careerist narcissism, an icky “uncle,” a boyfriend toyed with — the list goes on and on. It’s clear the two sisters love each other, in their way; they can be playful and gently mocking or loyal and compassionate. But as they grow older, they increasingly are locked into a pattern of grievance.
A few elements don’t come off so smoothly: An early recollection that their hoarder aunt refused to open Valu-Pak-style coupons (because she didn’t want the coupons to be split up) gongs portentously. Mullin also overuses the allegorical utility of Heidi’s TV show. It begins to stretch credulity that Holly would agree to appear on it, and that any living producer would agree to the idea of that segment.
A late-in-play revelation doesn’t provide the emotional reversal it might, coming and going so quickly, for one, plus Holly lapses into DramaSpeak(TM) about “crossing lines,” when Lass is more than capable of giving you the betrayal emotionally.
But by then, you’re hooked. You just want to watch Olson and Lass keep sparking with this truth, the incompatibility of this accidental, familial love with the adults they are, and how they keep returning to try it again — resentful and singing their sisters’ songs.