As she has throughout her illustrious career, Anna Manahan continues to create definitive stage characterizations for Ireland’s greatest writers. Now, at 82, after interpreting the words of Sean O’Casey, J.M. Synge, James Joyce, Christy Brown, Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh and others, she is bringing Declan Hassett’s “Sisters”– a one-woman show, written especially for her — to America.
First stop on her eventual way to New York in January is the Colorado Festival of World Theater at the Broadmoor, the famous five-star resort in Colorado Springs, where this production is one of many highlights in an impressive lineup of international talent.
In “Sisters,” the 1998 Tony winner (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) portrays the Clooney sisters, Martha and Mary, who present, in succeeding acts, sharply contrasting perspectives on their family and lives in rural Ireland in the ’50s and ’60s.
Hassett, like his brethren, has an ear that turns Irish into the most musical of all English dialects, as he details telling distinctions of voice, language and character between the contentious siblings. Each sister’s story, by itself, draws our sympathy, yet taken together, the two paint a tragic picture.
We meet Martha on her 70th birthday, and she’s none too happy about it. She’s made herself a cake, but can’t find a candle. Why would this irascible old woman be celebrating alone? We find out quickly that she’s at war with her sister, of whom she’s always been resentful.
Mary, it seems, was her fearsome mother’s favorite, her princess, while Martha was the apple of her jovial father’s eye. Ask Mary, though, and you’d hear her father was a philanderer, and her mother a long-suffering wife.
This bad blood between the parents is inherited by the siblings, where it festers for a lifetime, until it finally explodes in the play’s final moments, in a burst of blood and black humor.
Manahan is haunting as two different women peering out from the same familial face, as she discovers the beats, savors the language and reveals a pair of Irish hearts both savage and refined: Martha’s brogue is lush yet accessible, and often coarse; Mary’s lilt is formal and precise, at times condescending. In both characters, Manahan’s gift for storytelling never wavers.
The sisters are distinguished as well by Michael McCaffery’s costumes and Stuart Marshall’s sets — with Martha in simple garb upon a platform rocker and Mary in a suit set off by a brooch, surrounded by antiques — echoing Manahan’s impeccable portrayals of the two women.
As a showpiece it’s stellar; as a drama it’s stunning. Manahan is riveting, leaving no doubt that her skills are as formidable as ever.