Sisters as faux bros in ‘Problems Between Sisters’ at Studio Theatre

In the tension between them is some peak mammalian hormonal ferocity, unleashed to a perfervid pitch one rarely sees portrayed by women.

Studio Theatre and the playwright very much want us to know, going in, that Problems Between Sisters by Julia May Jonas is a genderswapped riff on True West, a 1969 dark comedy by Sam Shepard about two combative brothers. Jonas has picked this classic from the male canon, very loosely adapted its storyline, and turned the main characters into two combative sisters — both of whom, as it happens, are hugely pregnant.

Jess, 39, an earnest and wrapped-tight visual artist, is staying temporarily in her aunt’s cabin in the woods in Vermont in order to complete drawings of her deceased grandfather for her first solo show in New York. Annoying the hell out of her is Rory, her 10-years-younger sister, an obstreperous, street-smart drifter-grifter who hitch-hiked from Ohio and dropped in.

Annie Fox as Rory and Stephanie Janssen as Jess in ‘Problems Between Sisters.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Whatever meaning one may surmise from this gender-flipped world-premiere play (more about that momentarily), Stephanie Janssen’s performance as Jess and Annie Fox’s performance as Rory are spectacularly combustible and arrestingly watchable. At times one senses in the tension between them some peak mammalian hormonal ferocity, unleashed to a perfervid pitch one rarely sees portrayed by women toward each other on stage. Like faux bros, they roughhouse and provoke. Now and then the two even address each other unselfconsciously as “dude” and “man” — pointing to what may be the primary payoff of Jonas’ regendering: to give herself and her female characters permission to transgress socially imposed roles and gendered stereotypes, no limits. That the characters Jonas has conceived to do this transgressing are in their third trimester is a fascinating feat.

Jess’ shrewd art dealer, Anita (a suavely self-possessed Maya Jackson), shows up, and Rory wastes no time spoiling Jess’ prospects for a solo show. Rory, quite the con artist in her own right, cooks up a selfie-video scheme, ropes Jess into it, then pitches it to Anita, who loves it and promptly wants to put it into Jess’ show. It would be, says Anita, Rory’s videoed embodiment of birth alongside Jess’ pen-and-paper renderings of death. Jess is pissed.

If one is tracking plot points Jonas borrowed from Shepard, True West features a rising screenwriter named Austin, staying at his Mom’s while she’s away, hard at work on a script. When Austin’s agent arrives, Austin’s layabout brother Lee interferes and pitches a cockamamie story idea that the agent wants to get written and produced instead. Austin is pissed.

In Problems Between Sisters, the legendary Nancy Robinette makes a too-brief appearance as Aunt Barb, surprising the sisters who have made of the place a mess it would be a spoiler to explain. In True West, too, Austin and Lee’s Mom shows up in medias mess.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Stephanie Janssen as Jess and Annie Fox as Rory; Stephanie Janssen as Jess and Maya Jackson as Anita; Stephanie Janssen as Jess and Annie Fox as Rory; Annie Fox as Rory and Nancy Robinette as Aunt Barb, in ‘Problems Between Sisters.’ Photos by Margot Schulman.

There is an attractive naturalism in the Studio production that steadily becomes bizarre. The set design by Emmie Finckel is a charming and spacious book-lined living/dining area with a wood-burning stove, and the lighting by Colin K. Bills (warm yellows and greens with fireflies) and the sound by Daniela Hart, Noel Nichols, and Bailey Trierweiler (crickets and other woodland critters) get dialed up dramatically (along with projections by Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor) as the show turns surreal and the sisters animalistic. (Act Two ends cryptically with the gravid sisters mooing like milkcows.) The quirky costumes by Helen Q. Huang (especially the stylish outfits for Anita and the counter-cultural grub duds for Rory) are apt, the complex props challenge was met expertly by Luke Hartwood, and Jess and Rory’s unsettling fights were skillfully coordinated by Ashleigh King.

Truthfully, I’m uncertain what sense the narrative in Jonas’ Problems Between Sisters makes if not viewed through a motivational lens cribbed from Shepard. The scenes are funny and entertaining (be sure to come back from intermission for the hilarious doorknob story in Act II), sometimes shocking (to wit, the bovine bit), always exceptionally well performed, and the production has been flawlessly directed by Sivan Battat. We do get a vivid sense of these two entwisted sisters’ pasts, and Fox’s outstanding performance of Rory’s outsize personality can in this context fairly be called ballsy. But the play as a whole can seem more like an entertaining curiosity than an emotionally engaging experience, and it left me wondering: Is the Shepard stuntspiration more than a marketing hook?

Granted, I lack the sense memory to know how Jess and Rory’s pregnancies read to those whose bodies have birthed or could. But it occurs to me that that very lack points to a possible meta meaning in this play’s male-mimetic method: Could it be that Jonas is calling our attention to the fact that when we watch plays featuring men behaving like bros, we are willfully not noticing how hormonal is their oneupsmanship and how irrational are their cockfights? What if the deviously dark comedy Problems Between Sisters is telling us something subversive about problems between men?

Running Time: Approximately One hour and 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Problems Between Sisters plays through June 16, 2024, in the Mead Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($49–$99, with low-cost options and discounts available), go online or call the box office at 202-332-3300.

The program for Problems Between Sisters is online here.

COVID Safety: All performances are mask recommended. Studio Theatre’s complete Health and Safety protocols are here.

Problems Between Sisters
By Julia May Jonas
Directed by Sivan Battat

CAST
Jess: Stephanie Janssen
Rory: Annie Fox
Anita: Maya Jackson
Aunt Barb: Nancy Robinette
U/S Jess: Brenna Horner
U/S Rory: Rebecca Ballinger
U/S Anita: Melanie A. Lawrence
U/S Aunt Barb: Alison Bauer

PRODUCTION TEAM
Set Designer: Emmie Finckel
Costume Designer: Helen Q. Huang
Lighting Designer: Colin K. Bills
Co-Sound Designer: Daniela Hart
Co-Sound Designer: Noel Nichols
Co-Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler
Props Designer: Luke Hartwood
Projection Design: Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor
Fight And Movement Coordinator: Ashleigh King
Dramaturg: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Production Stage Manager: Joey Blakely
Casting Director: Claire Yenson

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.

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