Cinema Signal:

The Major Plays

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee

. "The Sisters"

The promising thing about a classic drama for the theatre being updated with modern references and issues is that it may attract thespian excellence. Director Arthur Allan Seidelman, armed with an astute screenplay by Richard Alfeiri (adapted from his stage play), had all that going in and came out with an ensemble that leaves no nuance unexplored, verbal and emotional. The result glorifies Anton Chekhov and the lasting power of great dramatic ideas.

There are three Prior sisters, as Chekhov's original title tells us. Bringing them together from the outset is the celebration of the youngest one, Irene (Erika Christensen, "Flightplan"), on her birthday. The venue is the faculty lounge of the university where elder sister Olga (Mary Stuart Masterson, "Leo") reigns as chancellor. It was shot in Eugene and Cottage Grove, Oregon.

Joining in is the sole male of the family, Andrew (Alessandro Nivola, "Junebug," "Jurassic Park III"), boyfriends, suitors, husbands and faculty associates of Olga's, notably, verbal assassin, asshole professor Eric McCormack (Gary Sokol, "The Audrey Hepburn Story"), master of the clever put-down; and the wise old leprechaun of the academic crowd, Dr. Chebrin (Rip Torn, "Men in Black II").

Also present as a suitor of Irene's is David Turzin (Chris O'Donnell, "Kinsey"). He comes under constant attack by McCormack who has eyes for the chubbily pretty baby of the family, as well. Andrew asserts his adulthood and independence from his dominating sisters by inviting his fiance', gorgeous Nancy (Elizabeth Banks, "Heights") who is all too fluffy and barbie-dollish for the elitist Priors. Handsome, married Vincent Glass (Tony Goldwyn, "The Last Samurai"), a former teaching assistant from Charleston where the family was raised, shows up out of nostalgia, having nothing to do with the party in progress. But, his memories of having met the siblings in their youth is going to limit their romanticized illusions, force them into the harshness of their reality, pose a real problem for Harry (Steven Culp, "Thirteen Days") because of who he's married to.

Which brings us to the central character, a demon on wheels, an intellect of boundless sarcasm and raw sensitivity, articulate Marcia (Maria Bello). She's referred to by her sister as "the pretty one." Damn right. Need I say more? I will. If anyone fulfills the central core of this play, it is this extraordinary actress and presence. Her performance is more than noteworthy--it's award level. You'll want to also see her in "The Cooler."

What we have here is a family whose father, an accomplished professor of the university and a debilitating influence on the lives of his very intelligent brood of maladjusted offspring, is now dead. What's left is a group of bright social misfits who love and hate, praise, protect and attack, with equal vigor and cleverness, providing all the sparks of drama that sustains the limited physical scope of a staged production.

Language is key here and it rises not only to a level of brilliance, but carries an outflow of humor within a mix of hateful spite, verbal violence, physical violence, drugs as a coping mechanism, youthful love, adult love and adultery, emotional fireworks, jealous rage, insult one-up-manship galore, disappointment, miscalculation, fantasies, lies, rejections, and more. Highly recommended.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The DVD of the 1970 production directed by Laurence Olivier

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