The Mineola Twins

Steven Thomas, Sango Tajima, Elissa Beth Stebbins.  All photos by Liz Olson.

Alike, even in their differences.

Paula Vogel’s The Mineola Twins is a farcical treatment about divisions – divisions within one’s self, divisions within families, divisions within society. Cutting Ball Theater presents a compelling and skilled version of the decorated playwright’s vision, but this script and this kind of theater is not for everyone. Yet, any thoughtful viewer should find it engrossing and provocative.

Elissa Beth Stebbins (above), Sango Tajima (below)

Twin sisters grow up in the suburban Long Island town of Mineola, ” a town so dull they didn’t even have a ‘red scare’.” The girls are physically identical except that Myrna, nominally the good one, is well endowed, while Myra, who’s never seen a rule she couldn’t break, is flat chested. Antipathy runs high between the two, and having to share a bedroom while growing up, Myrna insists on drawing a line down the center of the room to separate their lives as much as possible. Indeed, their fates will take them on very different paths.

Framed by references to the presidencies of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush 1, the action of the play begins in the ’50s and moves by steps into the ’90s. Each woman identifies with different personal, social, and political ideologies with some unpleasant consequences.

The storyline is written so that the twins never appear on stage at the same time and thus can be played by the same actress. Some audience members may become a bit annoyed with the identity confusion that results from the twins being named Myrna and Myra, differing by only a single letter. Clearly, Vogel did not select these names by accident. The near unity of the names suggests that all of the traits that the twins possess are essentially those that we all have within us. That each of us has good and bad, and each must manage internal conflict in order to navigate the world. Attendant to the self-determination issue, is that of genetics versus environment and the question of which dominates in determining people’s traits and actions.

Elissa Beth Stebbins, Steve Thomas.

The issue of internal conflict resolution ripples upward into families, and then into our communities and whole societies. Ultimately, The Mineola Twins is a political exposition, with the sisters representing the chasm of positions concerning external threats, the women’s movement, and implying much, much more.

Structurally, the play begins and ends with bomb scares. Within, there are four “dream sequences,” but this reviewer is unclear what the purpose of that device is. Too much stage time and plot line are invested in them to ignore them, but the playwright has some reason for that particular design. The biblical homilies of Jacob and Esau and of the Prodigal Son are also injected with obvious reference to the good and the bad child.

Elissa Beth Stebbins plays Myra/Myrna in a tour de force, constantly changing affect from scene to scene with great skill and energy, and sometimes within scenes as she scurries off stage as one to return as the other. She also grows the sisters from bickering and self-absorbed teens to mid-life adults – still bickering and self-absorbed. Not to mention that Stebbins is central to every scene.

Elissa Beth Stebbins.

The playwright specifies a female should play the combined roles of Jim, a young man involved in auto design who has relationships with both twins while they are in high school, and Sarah, a female that appears late in the chronology. The doll-looking Sango Tajima fits naturally as Sarah, who she plays naturalistically. Her diminutive appearance as Jim next to the significantly taller Stebbins initially creates some gender role dissonance, but Tajima’s performative take on Jim with wildly exaggerated expression and movement results in a magnetic characterization. Steven Thomas plays multiple parts but significantly appears late in roles of two different offspring, handling each commendably.

Director Ariel Craft has assembled a fine creative team. Michael Locher’s set is boxy and functional without adornment and seems intent on not interfering with the proceedings. Jacqueline Steager’s lighting and Sara Witsch’s sound are excellent individually, with great selection and variety, and they are well coordinated when needed.

This play is not among Vogel’s more produced plays. Perhaps the exaggerated style does not suit the mass-market theater goer; or the confounds in the plot confuse; or it is not consistently engaging. That said, there is much to like and appreciate about Cutting Ball’s presentation of this interesting piece.

The Mineola Twins by Paula Vogel is produced by Cutting Ball Theater, and plays at their stage at 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA through October 29, 2017.