I’ve always subscribed to the theory that the addition of actress Patricia French into any project automatically thrusts it in a highly credible direction. The new Ravens & Seagulls — written by local playwright Karla Jennings — features French and a slew of other talented performers navigating a satisfying drama about loss and family, courtesy of Essential Theatre. Luckily French is just one of the highlights here.
The cowinner of the 2014 Essential Playwriting Award, Ravens & Seagulls is running through August 17 at the West End Performing Arts Center in repertory with That Uganda Play, the play it shared its award with. That Uganda Play may be the more topical of the two, but Ravens & Seagulls is simpler and clearer in its storytelling, held together tightly by director David Crowe.
How three sisters respond to their dying youngest sibling is at the heart of the new show. Joan (Suzanne Roush), a jewelry maker, comes to San Jose to be with her beloved sister Amanda Sikodowska (Jill Perry), near death from liver complications. Joan’s other two siblings are spending their time there arranging meds and trying to make Amanda’s last days as pleasant as possible. Liz (Teresa DeBerry) is something of a control freak, planning things almost passive aggressively at times. (“You’re staying at the hotel tonight. We talked about this already.”) And oldest sister Myra (French), a doctor, is trying to keep the peace with Liz and feel she fits in. Besides Paige (Sarah Wallis) — Liz’s 21-year-old daughter — the house gets is share of friends paying their last wishes. (Said friends are played by Gina Rickicki and Sam Traquina.) It’s probably not surprising that the sisters quarrel, especially as they prepare for the inevitable.
It’s been a while since playwright Jennings had a production staged by Essential — 2000 to be exact, with the play Images in Smoke — and this one is especially sharp, with multiple layers. The sisters have all sorts of relationship issues between them, and one of the nicer assets of the play is that it doesn’t spell everything out. Backstories exist that we have to gauge ourselves. Amanda is everyone’s favorite sister and she has lived her life to the fullest, while others in the family have not. A less assured playwright might have tried to add more subplots but Jennings has an agreeable sense of what to tell and what not to.
Her dialogue, too, is very naturalistic, save for some of Joan’s speeches about Homer and The Odyssey. The production can be funny at times — Joan debates the virtue of Thor vs. Loki as a suitor; the siblings dig through Amanda’s belongings and are amazed at what they find. As a director, Crowe has been behind some quality work of late, especially his version of Equus at Actor’s Express last season, and he and Jennings are a compatible team. Fitting the mood, Crowe keeps it mostly spare and unfancy.
The play’s ensemble is one of the strengths. As expected, French brings sassiness and depth to Myra, and Perry gives Amanda a radiant spirit. It’s easy to see why people gravitate to her. DeBerry’s Liz seems simple at first, but she is a woman of backbone and strength. As her daughter, Wallis has the least developed role, but she sails by on charisma, while Rickicki and Traquina get to play many roles each. One of Rickiki’s roles is the character of the Savior who comes to Amanda and Joan. Some of the hallucinatory moments with that character don’t quite work, but they don’t lessen the overall impact.
As accomplished as the cast is, though, this is really Joan’s journey, and Roush has the centerpiece role. She does a superb job of making the character complex and showing how Amanda’s situation is turning her life inside out. Joan spends much of the first half of the play almost always smiling — and the smile subtly wears off. After a 10-year absence from the stage, it’s a magnetic piece of acting from Roush, one the major performances of the summer.
It may sound like an overly sentimental piece of theater, but Crowe and Jennings keep it classy. In the hands of these two and their cast, Ravens & Seagulls gets it mostly all right, down to the touching final moments.