Hundreds of Sisters & One Big Brother

Hers is an uncommon–and at times unbelievable–story: Deborah Swisher came of age in a now-defunct California commune called Synanon. Or was it a cult? See Hundreds of Sisters & One Big Brother and judge for yourself.

“Just what the annals of theater need,” you’re thinking. “Another cry-for-me-Argentina, self-indulgent solo rant.” But before you break out the Pepto Bismol, know this: Swisher doesn’t go anywhere near that territory. In fact, a one-woman show is about the only form for her fascinating story, since no one but Swisher herself could do justice to Hannah, her hippie-go-liberal Jewish mom; or to Mary, a perky crook-necked pseudo teacher; or to Betty, an African-American high priestess/preacherette. Just any actor couldn’t carry off a line like “We’re not a cult; we’re an alternative lifestyle” with actual sincerity. And another performer wouldn’t know first-hand the experience of having her 12-year-old head shaved.

The head-shaving episode is just one of the many horrific moments portrayed in Hundreds of Sisters…. There’s also the 72-hour tough-love ordeal which culminates in

young Debbie being labeled “evil,” “ugly,” and “damaged” by her peers while an adult goads them on. Perhaps most upsetting of all is the fact that Debbie is only allowed to see Mom once every three weeks, and to spend the night with her once a year (on her birthday). The idea, of course, is that Debbie had many mommies and daddies–and hundreds of sisters. The one big brother–and he was always watching–would be “The Founder” (Synanon’s Charles E. Dederich), who made sure kids would have many mommies and daddies by decreeing that married people change partners.

Surprisingly, Swisher doesn’t look back on all of this with a jaundiced eye. In fact, she presents her 10 years at Synanon (which she calls “The Group”) with an impressive combination of clarity and candor. After some of the jaw-dropping experiences she relates (just wait until you hear about “The Game”), it’s amazing that Swisher is willing to relive these moments night after night. She’s strong, but not in an in-your-face/I-have-overcome kind of way. More in a fresh-faced/pigtailed/sneakered kind of way. With remarkable athletic ability (who knew a solo sex scene could be so gymnastic?).

Swisher is an engaging presence, who bounds about the stage with the energy of the youth she portrays. Her character transitions are smooth, even if the whole Waco-inspired framing device isn’t. Kudos also to sound designer Lewis Flinn for his clever use of the Synanon-oriented phrase “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” to progress musically from folk to gospel to funk as the years go by. The ten-year expanse of Hundreds of Sisters… is a great start. I, for one, can’t wait to hear about the rest of Swisher’s life.

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