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Sibling Rivalry Taken to the Extreme in Cutting Ball Theater’s 'Mineola Twins'

Paula Vogel’s lesser-known study of feminism, from Ike through W.

Elissa Beth Stebbins as Myrna and Sango Tajima as Jimmy in 'The Mineola Twins' at Cutting Ball Theater.

 

Twice, during Paula Vogel’s 1996 play The Mineola Twins, staged by Cutting Ball Theater and now playing at the Tenderloin’s Exit Theatre through Oct. 29, the titular sisters try to explain their relationship to one another through the Biblical parable of the prodigal son. The first time, Myra, the “good,” prim, conservative of the two, is gritting her teeth while withdrawing $5,000 from a bank to send to her radical terrorist sister, who’s holed up and on the lam, so she can escape to Canada. Myra tells her teenage son about the hard-working son who stayed behind, and the spoiled, good-for-nothing one who leeched off the family until finally, one day, the older son called the cops and had her locked up for good.

The second time, Myrna, the “bad,” feminist, radical leftist sister, is explaining her relationship with her family to the same boy by describing the square brother and his square family—who live “way out in the suburbs”—and how the artistic, sensitive brother just needed a little bit of coin to get the hell out of dodge.

They’re among several twisted parallels being played out throughout The Mineola Twins, in which we follow twin sisters through 40 years of resentment and divergent paths. Playing both title roles is Elissa Beth Stebbens, who is superb, underscoring the comic similarities between the blood rivals. Sango Tajima and Steve Thomas round out the small cast, playing the sisters’ lovers and sons, respectively.

The production is a jaunty one and finds some well-earned laughs despite its often heavy themes of sexual politics and familial betrayal. A minimalist, MC Esche-inspired stage set (by Michael Locher) and snappy direction from Ariel Craft keep things moving at a rapid pace. Where the production loses some steam is in Act II, as the sisters’ rivalry boils into farce. The two sisters ultimately end up on opposing sides of the Reagan-era culture wars (some of the references seem as though they've been shoehorned in, like standing for the national anthem and white nationalist identity, but in fact come directly from Vogel). Myrna is now a lesbian and an organizer for Planned Parenthood; Myra a conservative talk-radio commentator and would-be abortion-clinic bomber. Both have become domestic terrorists—with the emphasis here on domestic. Whereas earlier in the production, it was easy to see through the sisters’ outer shells and into their shared humanity, by the end of the production, both have devolved into grotesque caricatures. 

There are other limits to how far the farce can go while remaining believable: Tajima, playing the role of Jim, the squaresville boyfriend who first comes between the sisters, is so over the top as to bear almost no resemblance to a real person—let alone to her later incarnation as Sarah, Myrna’s lesbian partner. There are gender-role reversals at work here, but even bearing that in mind, it was occasionally hard to look past the petite Jim and Myra’s difference in height. Still, this is an enjoyable production from one of the late-20th century’s premiere playwrights, and well-executed.

Another one of the refrains repeated throughout the production is that for women, there’s only black and white—good and evil. As the twin sisters move farther apart, toward their respective poles, all the richness of that shared middle ground, the grey, is lost.

The Mineola Twins, through Oct. 29 at the Exit Theater, cuttingball.com

 

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