Temporary Theatre Company

at the Mayfair United Methodist Church

I am married to three sisters. And apparently it’s not all that uncommon. I exchanged vows with only one of them, of course, but where one is, the other two are present also–at least in spirit. The rivalries among them, the way they adapted to their difficult and unhappy parents, their almost telepathic communication with one another–all of this helped bind them together into a single organism.

Close Ties is about three sisters, and playwright Elizabeth Diggs recognizes that the only possible way to understand each one is by way of the other two. Her skillful dialogue exposes the perverse emotions that sustain this unholy trinity, emotions that create a taut little drama out of what could easily have degenerated into sentimental pap. But Diggs does not focus obsessively on the sisters. Rather, as Chekhov did in The Three Sisters–an obvious model for this play–she allows the emotional preoccupations of these young women to emerge gradually as they loll around at their grandmother’s summer home in the Berkshires during two lazy August days.

Anna (Linda LeVeque), a 30-year-old wife and mother, is the oldest of the three; a typical first child, she is sober, responsible, and eager to please. She is also a little bored with her life. “Sometimes I feel as if all I am is a referee for children’s squabbles,” she complains. Evelyn (Stephanie Manglaras) is a 28-year-old graduate student in history at Harvard. Bitter after her divorce, she sees betrayal and exploitation everywhere, even in the dusty records she’s examining for her thesis: she believes these show that turn-of-the-century immigrant women in the United States starved themselves so their husbands and children would have enough to eat. Connie (Carrie Hegdahl), a nursing student who’s 23, is treated like the baby of the family though the sisters have a 16-year-old brother, Thayer (Fred Lusch). Yet Constance–“the martyr,” as her sisters label her–is the one who finally summons the courage to confront Evelyn with her cruelty and self-pity.

Their mother, Bess (Carole Kobin), is on the scene for a visit too, and she’s worried about Grandma Josephine (Shirley A. Kelly)–her mother–because the 84-year-old woman is becoming forgetful. Bess’s husband Watson (Thomas P. Balkin), a lawyer who has secluded himself in the guest house so he can work on a brief, wants to put the old woman in a nursing home–a plan that meets with fierce opposition, even though they all recognize that Josephine can no longer live alone.

Into these doings wanders Ira Bienstock (Jay Geller), the physics graduate student Evelyn has been sleeping with. She describes him to Anna as “a guy with a penis and a notebook full of equations,” but despite her assertion that their relationship is based strictly on sex, it’s obvious that Ira cares a great deal for her.

Like Chekhov, Diggs has her characters grope their way toward a philosophy that will help them cope. Evelyn, for example, starts out believing that marriage is no longer a functional institution. “I have a theory,” she says. “Whatever you get married for, you get the opposite–if it’s security, your husband will be unfaithful; if it’s money, he’ll lose it; if it’s love, he’ll end up despising you, or you’ll despise him.” Yet by the end of the play she is beginning to recognize how desperately she wants to be loved. Anna, who has just signed up for an acting class, recognizes that she is on the brink of becoming an aimless dilettante. Connie, despite the taunts of her sisters, defends her belief in a simple way of life, and Bess starts to accept the inevitability of degeneration and death.

These are not profound insights, but thanks to Diggs’s dialogue the characters seem to arrive at them honestly, giving Close Ties an emotional momentum that pulls the audience along. Even with a cast that includes several inexperienced actors, the Temporary Theatre Company’s production, directed by Suzanne E. Hannon, remains effective. The conflicts are so clear, in fact, that the play generates dramatic tension despite the flat line readings and nervous fumbling evident on opening night.

One performance, however, is outstanding. Stephanie Manglaras, a New York actress making her Chicago debut, deftly gives Evelyn the haughty pretensions of a smart but deeply wounded woman trying to use an icy intellect to armor her emotions. With a body hunched into defensive postures and a face that betrays a young woman’s anger and fear, Manglaras creates a character so compelling that the rest of the play seems to revolve around her.