Playwright Paula Vogel has an Obie Award for lifetime achievement, a Pulitzer Prize for her play How I Learned to Drive, and a place in the American Theater Hall of Fame. Vogel also enjoyed her Broadway debut earlier this year with an acclaimed production of Indecent, which earned three Tony nominations. Two decades earlier, she wrote one of the most creative and compelling plays about the AIDS crisis, The Baltimore Waltz.
Over her long career, Vogel has also written a dozen other plays that even her biggest fans may not have heard of. The Mineola Twins, a Kathie Rassmussen Women’s Theatre (KRASS) production running at the Bartell Theatre through October 28, is probably part of this category. And for good reason.
The Mineola Twins traces the lives of nearly identical twins Myra and Myrna (both played by Suzan Kurry), from teenagers in the 1950s Eisenhower administration, to middle-aged moms during the Nixon years and the George Bush Sr. era of the late 1980s. Coming from the small, dull town of Minneola, New York, the girls have a great deal in common besides their appearance. They have been indoctrinated with “middle class” values. They are both terrified of the air raid drills that instruct them to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear attack. They fall in love with the same actor (Amy Rowland, who plays both male and female roles), and they each have one son who prefers his aunt to his mother (again, both portrayed by the same actor, Loryn Jonelis). Both commit politically motivated crimes for the good of a fringe movement. They both hear voices, and have terrible nightmares of hell, that involve either saving their twin, or killing her. They love and hate each other in equal proportion.
But there are obvious differences, of course. The “good girl” twin Myna is stacked, with cleavage for days, while the “bad girl” twin Myra is flat-chested. One responds to her fear of the world by becoming a conservative Republican. The other turns that same fear into a lefty liberal philosophy. Through the decades, neither twin is completely happy with her polarizing political choice. Both are still afraid. Both are still inflicting pain on the other. Both grapple with the issues of sex, rivalry, money, motherhood, power, and loss.
Actress Suzan Kurry does the lion’s share of performing here. Capped with an assortment of wacky blonde wigs, she embodies both of the twins with realistic candor. As supporting love interests and sons, Amy Rowland and Loryn Jonelis follow suit, a bit awkwardly. Under Juli Johnson’s direction, the rather flat characters are played very middle-of-the-road, and it’s a choice the script can’t really support. They never become cartoonish parts of a satire or farce, but they never feel three-dimensional enough to inhabit a straight drama. As clumsy FBI agents and equally clumsy asylum personnel, Nichole Young Clarke and Bryan Royston wander into ridiculous territory in a dream sequence, but their shtick is not done well enough or often enough to really register.
Aside from the shallow script, which feels at times like a poor man’s Heidi Chronicles, there are production problems. At several points Vogel indicates that voices should be altered and amplified for effect, and KRASS does that. Unfortunately the quality of the recordings is often muddy, obscuring the message rather than heightening it.
Set design is also a problem for this play, which is billed as a comedy. With elaborate scene changes that are frequently as long as the scenes in between, there’s no way for the show to gain momentum, which hurts both the storytelling and the possibility for humor. (If these interludes were long because they were covering for lengthy costume changes while Kurry morphed from one twin to the other, then the costume design, by Mary Schulte, is also culpable.) And while many of the set pieces and change-overs could have been streamlined, the simplicity of placing an 8x10 poster on an otherwise black set to announce that the actors are now in a bank, a hippie apartment, or a Planned Parenthood office is painfully minimalist.
By far, the most interesting scenes in the play are the dream sequences, owing primarily to the lyrical language Vogel uses. Much more complex than the characters’ divergent political views, these sections explore common recurring anxieties and the undeniable connection the twins have, even though their choices in the waking world are diametrically opposed.
An edited version of this review appears in Isthmus.