CHESTER — Time and the elements have taken their toll on the Cape Cod cabin that is the setting for John Kolvenbach's "Sister Play," which is having its regional premiere in a steadfastly acted production at Chester Theatre Company.
"Why do we even have a key? You could push through that wall with your hand," one of the characters, Malcolm, a fortysomething novelist whose last book was a modest success, at best, says to himself at the opening of the play.
"What percentage of this house is mold, do you think? Fifty percent. Half of its actual physical makeup is mold."
The signs of decay are emblematic of a family that is barely holding on in the wake of the death 20 years earlier of the family patriarch, leaving his two daughter, Anna, the oldest, and Lilly to be raised by cousins while their mother runs off to Europe with another man.
His absence is keenly felt. The ties that bound the father to his daughters have frayed and Anna (Tara Franklin) is doing the best she can to hold on, especially when it comes to Lilly (Therese Plaehn), who has knack for self-destructive relationships with men.
"Sister Play" unfolds during one of Anna, Lilly and Malcolm's annual visits to the cabin.
"We come every year and stay for a couple nights," Malcolm, who is married to Anna, observes in a perceptive summing up. "We make a meal because religion has failed us in our struggle to deal with elemental things including grief and remembrance, and so we have our own thing we do; that's why we come. And it is often fraught. Steam comes out through random cracks when the pressure's on."
The pressure gets just a bit higher when Lilly brings home a stranger she has picked up along the side of the road, much as she might rescue a stray animal.
His name is William Casey (Justin Campbell); a rootless, meandering itinerant with only $300 in his pocket, he says. He is looking for connection, welcome, invitation, belonging, a place to put down roots of his own. Clearly his presence will upset the delicate balance in the relationship between the vulnerable, freewheeling Lilly and Anna, who is doing her best to hold control, maintain boundaries in the absence of their father.
The play centers on the essentially loving and caring relationship between Anna (played by Tara Franklin with a convincing sense of the conflicting emotions within her) and Lilly (Therese Plaehn in a performance that is not as crisply defined) who finds comfort in her relationship with Anna while, at the same time, feeling the need to establish her own life; find her own safe place.
"Sister Play" charts, not always successfully or engagingly, a tricky course between gently observed humor and poignantly noted drama involving characters who are only intermittently worth caring about. Director Daniel Elihu Kramer's even-handed, at times, plodding, production does little to bridge the gap. It often feels too cautious and withholding; as much adrift and abandoned as the seashells and driftwood on the beach outside.
As Malcolm, Barry offers the only consistent note of grace as a well-meaning, loving, at times sublimely ineffectual teddy bear of a husband and brother-in-law. His is about as complete and full a portrayal as we get.
As Casey, Campbell is often as difficult to hear as he is problematic to define.
A little more than halfway through "Sister Play," Lilly Anna and Malcolm pull out the song sheets for their ritual singing of "Blue Bayou," a song about wistful memories of happier times at a happier place. Their search for blue bayous of their own is the spine of "Sister Play." How unfortunate that their journey invites, rather than a warm embrace, a mere shrug of the shoulders.
What: "Sister Play" by John Kolvenbach. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer
With: James Barry, Justin Campbell, Tara Franklin, Therese Plaehn
Who: Chester Theatre Company
Where: Chester Town Hall, 15 Middlefield Road, Chester
When: Through Aug. 14. Evenings — Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
Tickets: $37.50; Chester resident and student rush — $10
How: 1-800-595-4849; chestertheatre.org