The title summons powerful ghosts — Shakespeare, maybe Chekhov. Will these sisters be wrestling with the three witches who guide Macbeth’s fate? Or with the Prozorovs, who yearn for Moscow?
Neither, it turns out. These are the Brontë sisters — Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, early Victorian poet/novelists who burst into fame when Charlotte’s Jane Eyre hit print. But in this telling, they’ve morphed into modern women. Emily’s a math genius on a PhD fellowship, who prefers to be called E.J.; Anne’s camped in Emily’s dorm room while trying to start a PR career; and Charlotte has gone off to join an island commune.
They’re all struggling with their beloved brother’s sudden death. With him, they had shared a tight-knit childhood, centered on an imaginary world where they ruled adjacent realms.
This closely mirrors the historic Brontës, who for decades escaped their impoverished Yorkshire home for adventures in the Empire of Angria and the island continent of Gondal, recounted in secret illustrated volumes. Their brother, a gifted painter, died an addict at 31; without him, the sisters declined swiftly. Emily and Anne were dead within six months, and Charlotte only lived five years longer.
Without their brother, the modern sisters are also at sea. They still resort to the game in times of stress. And the island Charlotte has fled to is named Gondal. What’s at stake is whether these three can somehow navigate loss better than the originals did.
The plot is driven by Anne’s plan to build a canoe, row to Gondal, and rescue Charlotte — and by E.J.’s dogged effort to solve the famous Riemann Hypothesis. But when their fragile facades clash, both fracture, and we see the roiling lava underneath. We come to care more about these sisters’ inner lives, and their survival, than about their quixotic quests.
As Anne, Kara Hume rides the edge of ADHD like a butterfly, pulsing with the electricity that powers her precious phone. Dana DeRuyck as E.J., meanwhile, exerts every ounce of energy to hold her rage and grief silent — but erupts, to her chagrin, again and again. Charlotte (Robyn Cohen), when she appears, brings yet another kind of near-madness to the mix, in a bravura monolog.
When the play ends, we know these characters far better, and care about them far more, than we did at first. What we don’t know is any answer to the central question, how they will fare. It’s a testament to playwright Jami Brandli — and to the company of artists — that rather than feeling cheated, we feel satisfied.
Sisters Three raises the ghosts of the historic Brontë sisters, yet I do not see it wrestling with them or their legacy. Nor does it appear to be commenting on differences between the two eras. As a longtime Brontë fan, I enjoy the parallels between the two sets of siblings — yet the modern trio are crafted well enough that this would be a fine, funny play even without the historical underlay.
The Inkwell Theatre mounts this fairly energetic play in a tiny black box. Set designer Lex Gernon uses it to evoke a cramped dorm room — made infinitely worse by the bulky presence of Anne’s canoe. Director Annie McVey keeps the action contained so that when an enraged E.J. stomps into the boat to get to Anne, we feel the violation. And when the two, in their royal personas, fall to angry swordplay, Collin Bressie’s fight direction — and the canoe — keep the stakes high and the action credible.
Sisters Three tells an emotional family story, but not as a kitchen-sink weeper. Instead, it’s a lively, intelligent comedy, half realistic and half surreal. And the smart, energetic performances are worth the price of admission.
Sisters Three, by Jami Brandli, directed by Annie McVey.
Presented by The Inkwell Theater, at VS. Theatre, 5453 Pico Blvd., LA 90019.
Thursday (Dec. 27) at 8:00;
Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
Mondays (Jan. 7 and Jan. 14) at 8:00,
through Jan. 20th.