WELLFLEET — Tropes, including family secrets and a mysterious stranger who exposes them, are given a fresh and potent rendering in “Sister Play” by John Kolvenbach, which is having its world premiere at the Harbor Stage Company.
The stellar ensemble includes all four founding members of the company under the taut direction of playwright Kolvenbach (“Love Song,” “Fabuloso”).
As the title suggests, there’s plenty of play in the relationship between Anna (Brenda Withers) and her younger sister, Lilly (Stacy Fischer). The show opens with their arrival at their late father’s ramshackle Cape Cod house, a moldy mess of books and battered furniture (“This place smells of every bad thing that’s ever happened!” wails Lilly). The bond between the two quickly becomes evident and, in the hands of Withers and Fischer, rings true. Lilly flops in an old wicker chair and cajoles her sister to sit on her lap with all her weight, an affectionate plea that Anna resists. The gesture is given more meaning as the play progresses. Whose weight is crushing whom? Who is protecting whom?
The sisters are accompanied by Anna’s husband, Malcolm (Robert Kropf), whose wry manner and funny asides about sisterly struggles and their impenetrable bond are also given resonance as their time in the house unfolds. Malcolm, a writer, is the interpreter of Anna and Lilly’s unspoken language: He talks to himself (and thus to the audience) and has some of this deft and literate play’s best lines. As much as he grouses about being in the middle of two sisters — and there’s a beautiful monologue about his being a mere pamphlet wedged between two complementary tomes — Malcolm enjoys the mothering. He admits he once cut himself on purpose so his wife and sister-in-law would fuss over him.
The ghost of Anna and Lilly’s dead father, also a writer, hangs over the room in the form of the musty books and a tin can where he hoarded jewelry, an act that contributed to the long-ago disappearance of their mother. His presence is merely felt, but a fourth character, William Casy (Jonathan Fielding), appears in the flesh to disrupt the delicate balance that Anna, Lilly, and Malcolm have created and the roles they’ve carved out. William is a mild-mannered, Texas-born drifter that Lilly meets on the roadside when she goes out for a drive (to Anna’s chagrin). Fielding makes William likable even while we’re not sure if he’s real or a projection of Lilly’s fantasies and desires.
Act two begins with a lovely bit of stage business as the trio silently prepares a dinner table, their simple actions revealing character. The formal table and Anna and Lilly’s dresses seem incongruous with the disintegrating house, yet it becomes clear that they’re playing at family ritual. As the wine flows and the sisters break into “Blue Bayou,” William arrives in a new suit like a Gentleman Caller. (One weird detail is that he claims to have hitchhiked to New York to buy it. From Cape Cod? Even a Texas drifter could figure out that there’s a mall in Hyannis.)
Anna goes into full possessive throttle, and her protective zeal for her sister is as touching as it is jolting. With her sinewy body and sharp angles, Withers is a force on stage. But she’s matched by the soft, slouchy Fischer, whose Lilly is able to stand up to her sister as the bond between them tightens like a vise.
“Sister Play” doesn’t resort to unearned histrionics or cliches about sisterhood. The work of these two vibrant actresses delivers flesh-and-blood women whose scars show the reality of loss. The hole has become more familiar than the object/person that once filled it.