‘Etiology’ at The Catholic University of America by Francine Schwartz

The Catholic University of America’s Department of Drama presented a very moving production of Etiology, a new play – an M.F.A. playwriting  thesis – written by Teri Gillmor. The passionate production was directed by Shirley Serotsky.

Teri Gillmor.
Playwright Teri Gillmor.

Etiology tells the story of three estranged sisters who ponder reconciliation or to simply go their separate ways after their mother dies. Gillmor calls Etiology ‘a  psychology play’ and it not only explores the themes of family attachments, dysfunction, and distortions of memory, but exploits some of the techniques of psychodrama to drive the action forward. In psychodrama, for the uniniated, individuals are coached to act out historical events to trigger sense and affective memories so that conflicts can be explored in a fresh way, unhindered by defensive mechanisms like suppression and detachment.

When the play opens there has been a death of the family matriarch and I prepared myself for a potential struggle over the material possessions left behind. But that was not the case at all. The three daughters, later joined by a hitherto unknown half sister, attempt to explore their relationship and how their personalities evolved in the context of their mother’s mental illness. Conveniently, the fourth sister is a “healer,” convinced that alternative medicine is needed to heal the hurt of each of the three. How she does it would be a “spoiler,” but I can say that divine inspiration and psychic phenomena are involved.

The cast is superb! Tara Costello plays Pearl, the youngest sister, and the one who remains to be her mother’s caretaker whilst maintaining a persona of sheltered innocence and unwavering loyalty to her mother. Her change, at the end of the play, is quite stunning as we see how her caretaking had stunted her maturation into a vibrant contemporary woman. Amie Cazel plays Amber, the obnoxious sister, whose abrasive demeanor and strong aversion to contact with her mother, or her mother’s ashes, is explained in the later part of the story (and seems totally justified). Kimberlee Wolfson is consistently credible as Ivory, the hippy daughter, who had fled the family home and has discovered the fourth sister, Zinnia, By chance, she resurrected information about the father whose early death had resulted in a vacuum of information as well as a vacuum of parental support. Zinnia is the most challenging role as she must fill the role of the catalytic agent, morphing into a psychotherapist who can channel the spirits. And Latia Stokes really delivers in her very convincing performance.

Steven Royal’s brilliant Scenic Design utilized the exceptional height and depth of the backstage, allowing for a last scene to suddenly appear, along with a lake view beyond a boardwalk. Changes of scenery were expeditiously accomplished by raising and lowering of curtains rather than the usual moving around of furniture alone. The initial backdrop held a number of picture frames which were intermittently highlighted by Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna to symbolize shifting tokens of family events. There was also excellent work, including some effective rumblings, produced by Sound Designers Camille Greenfield and Patrick Calhoun.

Congratulations to everyone involved in CUA’s superb production of Etiology.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and forty-five minutes, without an intermission.


Etiology played February 15 and 16, 2014 at The Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre-3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. Visit their website for information on their future productions. The Thursday 2/13 and Friday 2/14 performances were cancelled due to a winter storm that enveloped the DC area.

Etiology: An Interview with Teri Gillmor by Kevin O’Connell.


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