Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District
Rainbow Zebra Productions LLC at the Magic Theatre
Memories of parents long dead, of childhoods interrupted, and of a sibling relationship almost non-existent swirl amongst a stored-box clutter of letters, pictures, knickknacks, and clothing from lifetimes past as two sisters sort through their own and their parents’ histories. In Andrea Gordon’s world premiere Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District now on stage at Magic Theatre by Rainbow Zebra Productions LLC, the title characters arrive in wintery New York City from their separate West Coast locations to confront memories, regrets, and resentments that have haunted each for decades. After years of little-to-no contact, they negotiate their own reunion with a mixture of initial caution, eventual confession, and a parting, semi-catharsis of uprooted, strong emotions.
Sixty-four-year-old Miriam – a classical music producer from Southern California – sports an air of chatty sophistication in her design-worthy leather pants as she sorts through the belongings of her and her sister’s stepfather, Heinrich, who married their twenty-year-deceased mom soon after their own dad died of cancer more than forty years prior. The recent widow of Heinrich who married him right after their own mother died has asked the two sisters to return to see what they may want among the many musty suitcases, boxes, and scattered belongings that she has left behind – many of which are also filled with costumes and playbills from their mom’s career as an opera singer and from their dad’s as a classical pianist.
In contrast to Miriam, younger Esther has the look of the Berkeley Hills in her flowery pants, loose-fitting woolens, and floppy boots. She is less inclined to be totally serious about the sorting and discarding of all the past as she breaks into Broadway favorites from her career as a stage performer, dancing around a mostly non-amused Miriam. Miriam does take time to take another nip of brandy, telling her sister, “The magic of being an alcoholic is that it is never too early, never too late [to drink].”
We soon learn the reason the sisters who live in the same state have had little contact in the past forty years is that Miriam left home at seventeen soon after their widowed mother married Heinrich, leaving a much-younger Esther feeling abandoned. “Nobody loved me; nobody wanted me” is how Esther remembers her childhood after her dad died, her mother began dating Heinrich, and Miriam left. After all, from the age of nine to eleven her mother left her alone every night as she stayed with Heinrich, leaving a frightened little girl who slept in the hallway to avoid being alone in the dark.
That revelation from one sister to the next is just one of several pent-up, unshared secrets each has been harboring for a near-lifetime and that are now emerging into the open – unspoken truths that have helped create a rarely crossed chasm between them. But as they sort through their own issues with each other, they continue discovering more and more long-tossed-and-hidden letters. Aspects of their stepfather, their mother, and especially their mutually beloved father erupt unexpectantly from the faded-ink pages to shake the very foundations of who were the parents from their younger lives that they thought they knew so well.
Ellen Brooks and Janet Roitz provide admirable portrayals of sisters Miriam and Ellen, respectively. Ellen Brooks in particular seems to relish her role as Miriam, adding often an intensity palpable as she rummages through boxes and chats in a pace and exactness that easily holds attention. However, both actors at times seem hampered by a directorial pace by playwright and director Andrea Gordon that can feel labored. Their delivery of a script that sometimes asks one or the other to glance only seconds at a stack of letters and then to deliver huge revelations of the contents is not always believable. And when at one point the two have a major argument, neither seems committed to the depth or personal, emotional impact that the scene seems to be asking – a fault maybe more in direction that in the acting.
However, when spirits arise from the memories of both the sisters and from the surroundings of boxes full of costumes, programs, and letters, the script, the acting, and the play’s direction soar as Merrill Grant and RP Welsh emerge from a closed closet as Mom and Dad – each as they must have appeared many decades prior. To reveal much more would be to give away too many of their stories’ details, but the energy and excitement the two actors bring to the stage is electric; and I for one wish their ghostly presences had been much more the focus of the entire evening.
(I do have to add that the operatic arias Merrill Grant delivers and the tour of 40s, 50s, and 60s dance styles provided by both her and RP Welsh are true memories to be carried a long time past the final curtain call.)
Many kudos deservedly also go to the entire creative team. Nina Ball once again has created a scenic design that makes one want to go on stage and rummage through the boxes of vintage record albums, programs from performances long ago, and letters that appear from the closeness audience is to the stage actually to be epistles of loves and lusts, of devotions and duress. Beaver Bauer’s costumes define beautifully the personalities and quirks of the two main characters, but she has excelled especially in the gowns of decades past that Mom wears in her ghostly appearances. A highlight during and in between scenes are recordings of classical piano – which can easily be assumed to be those of the famous pianist, Dad – recordings that have the sound and scratchiness of vintage albums of the 30s and 40s. Finally, Kurt Landisman’s lighting casts both the correct tint and shadows on an abode and its basement now abandoned as well as on the other-worldly appearances of parents long dead.
World premieres are a big commitment of Magic Theatre; and their world premieres are important, exciting, and risky. Andrea Gordon’s script and direction of Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District still has some rough edges here and there, but the life of the new work is young; and there is promise for its future.
Rating: 3 E
Miriam and Esther Go to the Diamond District continues through January 28, 2024, in world premiere production by Rainbow Zebra Productions LLC at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center Building D, Third Floor, 2 Marina Boulevard, San Francisco. Tickets are available at https://magictheatre.org/.
Photo Credits: Marcus Hanschen