For its first full-length production, the new Chimera Ensemble has chosen a Chicago premiere, Collette Freedman's Sister Cities, now running at the Den Theatre. With a cast of five women, including Chimera artistic director Rainee Denham, Sister Cities takes a handful of common family-drama tropes — estranged adult siblings reconvene to mourn a parent, secrets are uncovered, ancient grudges are finally laid to rest – in wildly unexpected directions. Even after what appears to be "the twist" occurs, the family reunion swerves further down a dark path.
Four half-sisters, all daughters of the same free-spirited mother, return to their childhood home in Poughkeepsie, New York, for a macabre reunion when their mother's body is found dead in her bathtub. Their mother named each of them for the area where they were born. Eldest sister Carolina (Katlynn Yost) is a driven lawyer who has fled to the West Coast. Happily married Dallas (Anna Donnell, in a wryly funny turn) teaches grade school in Philadelphia. The brilliant Baltimore (Norma Chacon) is a perpetual academic. And Austin (Nicole Fabbri), a celebrated novelist hiding from the surprise success of her first book, has been living in Poughkeepsie in the old house, the only witness to their mother's decline.
Grief hits each sister very differently, and under Ashley Neal's direction, it is heartbreaking to watch. There are moments, particularly in the first quarter of the play, when the cast struggles to match one another in tone, but when the four actresses are in sync, they are wonderful.
As the distant and distracted Carolina, Yost captures a vulnerability that saves the role from becoming villainous as she butts heads with her sisters. Donnell provides unexpected humor as the seemingly content Dallas learns to speak up for her own needs. Chacon is sometimes unsteady, which is perhaps appropriate for the young dilettantish Baltimore, but she seems to falter when going toe-to-toe with her castmates.
When matriarch Mary finally appears onstage via flashback, she does not disappoint. Denham plays a nuanced combination of fragility and steely resolve. Fabbri's performance as Austin, already strong, is elevated when paired with Denham, and together they convey a lifetime of history in every word.
This sense of family history is aided by Grant Sabin's set, a lived-in front room stuffed with family photos, stacks of books, and discarded slippers. Gwendolyn Wiegold's costumes serve as a shorthand to indicate exactly what kind of women these sisters have grown to be, from Dallas' head-to-toe Ann Taylor to Austin's classic slacker uniform of pajama pants in the afternoon. Steve Labedz's sound and Meghan Erxleben's lighting blend well in the scene transitions, most notably in a dreamy flashback introduction.
Sister Cities is, by its final moments, a moving family portrait. Chimera Ensemble has staked its claim as a young Chicago company to watch.