Michael Hollinger’s Tiny Island certainly fits the theme chosen for the Washington Stage Guild’s 30th year—“A Season of Past & Future.” The premise of estranged sisters reuniting after decades of stony neglect—in the movie house sanctuary of their childhood, no less—and finding their way forward by confronting the past is ripe for exquisite theater but Hollinger’s script falls short of the play’s lofty aim.
One of the playwright’s earlier offerings, Tiny Island treads the oft-mined territory of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, skips around the theme of obsolescence, calls up the memory play and halfheartedly crosses over into the realm of magical realism (or mental illness? It’s not made clear).
Set in the early 1980s, middle-aged sisters Muriel (Laura Giannarelli) and Hazel (Lynn Steinmetz) come together after their father’s heart attack when Muriel drops in from her seemingly well-manicured life halfway across the country and offers to buy the family’s timeworn movie theater. Hazel works in the cinema’s projection booth, screening Golden Age-era Hollywood films to dwindling patrons in the era of accommodating new technologies: video and cable television.
The script layers on resonance and metaphor like layers of wallpaper: the projection room is where the sisters, as children, would escape their father’s sternness and spend time with their mother, who changed the film reels.
It was the tiny island of their formative years, where they would consume the contrived celluloid romances and adventures though the viewing porthole in their nest above the darkened theater, and dream about all the romance and adventure that awaited them. It’s also where an incident triggers the 30-year rupture in the sibling’s relationship.
Both women now suffer failing marriages, and live in lonely denial about the future.
Poignancy is flirted with when one of the sisters gets a chance at a re-do of a pivotal moment from the past, but the promises of the premise are mostly too large for the playwright to bring home.
Some will take away the suggestion that all would be better if we could stop time on our own tiny islands as sweetly nostalgic but others will see that summation as flaky and shallow.
Artistic Director Bill Largess does a fine job with the hit-and-miss material, creating a warm, easygoing production.
The scenes are set within a delightfully rendered projection room designed by Kirk Kristlibas, completed with the addition of two grand, authentic arc-carbon film projectors borrowed from the Catholic University drama department. The lighting is evocatively crafted by Marianne Meadows, and the sound design by Frank DiSalvo, Jr. is sharp. Kristlibas does double duty with the costumes from two eras (1950s and 1980s), and obviously had some fun with the ‘80s teens’ looks.
October 1 – 25, 2015
Washington Stage Guild
at Undercroft Theatre
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $40 – $50
The roles of Muriel and Hazel are juicy for middle-aged actresses, and Steinmetz is genuine and unerring. Her Hazel is a likable crank, plastering over her pain with vodka from the toilet tank and wise-cracking about human shortcomings, her own included. She delivers most of the choice quips, such as: “people talk about working on a marriage, like they’ve got it up on blocks in the garage.”
Giannarelli’s Muriel was a problem for me, however. She comes off awkwardly, delivering lines and expressions as if in a staged reading and not someone with a firm grip on the character. The characterization is bothersome as it doesn’t fit in with the whole and is especially evident in contrast with Stienmetz’s grounded realism.
In the supporting roles, David Mavricos’ goofy shtick as Mike, the young usher and Hazel’s steadfast companion eventually grows charming and Nora Achrati is appealing as the young Muriel in a flashback scene.
Running time: Two hours with one intermission.
Rating: 3 stars
Tiny Island by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Bill Largess. Featuring Laura Giannarelli, Lynn Steinmetz, David Mavricos and Nora Achrati. Set Design: Kirk Kristlibas. Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows. Costume Design: Kurt Kristlibas. Sound Design: Frank DiSalvo, Jr. Production Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie. Produced by Washington Stage Guild. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.