What control do parents have over the legacy they leave their children? Why does it seem that despite parents’ best efforts, children are destined to imitate their parents’ mistakes and inherit their faults? And then there’s that age-old dilemma: Should a defunct sister-band perform their rock legend mother’s most famous song during the concert honoring the anniversary of her fatal heroin overdose?
Who hasn’t grappled with that?
In 1990, Melanie Singer burned out instead of fading away, leaving her three daughters, Kit, Tanya and Collin to make their own way in the world. They chose her world, forming their own punk-rock sister act, “The Dark Hearts,” in 1998, which lasted a few years until Kit went out to begin a slightly more successful musical career on her own, breaking up the act and the family.
Now, after 15 years apart, Kit is back in town, and the sisters are reuniting for a Melanie Singer tribute concert. There is talk about re-forming “The Dark Hearts,” as well as public outcry for the three to perform their mother’s final song at the concert. And there is Max, Tanya’s 15-year old daughter, an aspiring guitarist and songwriter who wants nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of her famous Aunt Kit and the grandmother she never met. It is a pressure-cooker of nostalgia, grief, resentment and anger.
There is something refreshingly old school about a straightforward family drama, and something instantly compelling about the dynamics among three sisters. Dramatists drink from this well again and again, from Shakespeare’s King Lear and Chekov’s The Three Sisters to Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and The Brady Bunch, writers are fascinated with the competitions and conflicts that come up in a triangle of siblings, and so are audiences. Maybe because out of the interplay between “Firstborn”, “Middle Child” and “The Baby,”everyone of us can identify with at least one of them. These iconic relationships are so familiar that stories about them risk becoming formulaic. Playwright Crystal Skillman and Director Mitch Golob gamble with that risk and come out big winners.
Most of that win is due to an extraordinary ensemble cast, but part of it has to be attributed to setting this story in the world of punk rock, the appropriate back drop for all this raw emotion. Another Kind of Love is a play with music, rather than a musical, so there isn’t a song in every scene, but the audience gets to see how the family communicates most easily when they are playing together. And it gets to experience the cathartic release of a hypnotic baseline, unrelenting drumbeat and loud-as-hell guitar and vocals along with the characters when they rock out. And the audience needs that release, because Sisters. Don’t. Play. Fair.
Fifteen years may have passed, but here in their family home, the sisters pick up right where they left off. They are brutally funny with their barbs. They push each others’ buttons; they talk at each other instead of to each other. They jab, blame, deflect, rinse and repeat. All this provides great contrast to tender moments where they vulnerably ask for each others’ approval and forgiveness. In a family of musicians, the most dangerous question might be “What do you think of my song?” They seek the impossible prize of their mother’s attention the only way they can get it: through each other.
Courtney Jones is heartbreaking as the hard-candy shelled Tanya, the older sister left holding the bag of family responsibility at the expense of her own dreams. Patrons melt with her as she desperately tries to steer her daughter away from following in her footsteps, all the while repeating her own mother’s mistakes.
As Kit, the prodigal rebel who gets out and makes something of her life, only to find it unrewarding, Annie Prichard brings a likeability that audience members almost resent feeling despite themselves. It’s easy to see why her niece idolizes her. She’s selfish. She’s tortured. She’s reluctanly beautiful. She’s badass. She’s everything we want in a rock star. Her brooding finds a nice foil in Amber Kelly’s exuberant Collin. Kelly injects energy and humor into her scenes, forcing the pace when it’s needed, like any good drummer. She is especially delightful when she’s screaming at her family to actually express their ANGERRRRRR.
Brady Johnson is hilarious as Roger – a former professional and personal collaborator of the sisters, pushing for all kinds of reunions. His motivations are a bit suspect, but he’s only fooling himself. The Singers have his number and ultimately decide what to let him get away with, which infuses humor even when he is at his most creepy and swarmy toward teenage Max.
In contrast, Tyler Young’s Nate is endearingly earnest and equally as funny as Max’s boyfriend. We root for him to break through Max’s doubts and insecurities. These actors hold their own in what is clearly a woman’s world. Romantic relationships take a distant backseat to family, art and career.
And then, as Max, Alison Hixon steals the audience’s dark hearts. From the first moment she’s seen trying to master a challenging guitar riff, she is exhaustingly authentic as a young woman bursting with ambition, searching frantically for the direction to match that ambition. On opening night, her last word, the final line in the play, elicited gasps from more than one audience member.
Details in the set and costumes will reward those who look for them. The women dress in classic rock armour of tattered jeans and black boots, signaling just how little they care about what anyone thinks of them. Where another family might hang a picture of their mother, the Singer’s walls are adorned with Melanie’s guitar and framed vinyl albums of what are assumed to be her hit records – relics of her fame and public persona. And, for all of Max’s protestations that she wants to be more like her Aunt Kit, the rock star, and less like her mother Tanya, her teenage room is decorated in her mom’s favorite color at the same age. History repeating.
Both on and off-stage, Skillman is a champion for young voices, known for mentoring young writers and for the respect she gives to their emotional world in her plays. There is no smug mocking of Max’s struggles here. There is no dumbing down of her dialogue with Nate. They are both portrayed as smart, fully drawn people, getting their toes wet in the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll with much greater cultural awareness and grace than the older generation before them.
The play itself is in its adolescence of sorts. Although it has been workshopped and developed at several theaters, the infusion of music is a recent (and essential) addition for this production. The creative team of veteran lyricist Caroline Dorsen and Passing Strange’s Heidi Rodewald produces some great music and some amazing moments of watching four women rockers just killing it. It also presents some new logistical challenges for the production, not the least of which is how to transition from a makeshift rehearsal space in a living room to a live concert stage. Golob makes a strong attempt through lighting and crowd noise, but there are some kinks to smooth out there, for sure.
Like a band learning a new song, there’s a bit of a drag to the pace of the first act, followed by a second act that seems to rush some scenes along. It’s easy to imagine it getting a little slicker, a tad tighter in the future. But there’s excitement to be had in catching Another Kind of Love where it is in its development right now: it is pure energy, rough but honest. Like an argument between sisters. Like punk rock.
InFusion Theatre’s Another Kind of Love plays at the Chopin Theatre on W. Division Street, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm through June 14. Tickets are $15- $28 and available online here.