THIRD RAIL REPERTORY'S history with playwright Craig Wright—which dates back to their first production, Wright's Recent Tragic Events—comes to a sort of fruition with The Gray Sisters, a script Wright wrote for (and in collaboration with) Third Rail's actresses.
The Gray Sisters is a play about four adult sisters; it spans many years; it is structured as a series of conversations, held between each woman and an invisible second party (a father, a mother, a lover, and a child). But here's the dismaying clincher—the show's emotional core is the sexual abuse suffered by one sister at the hands of their stepfather.
Abuse and assault are an undeniable part of the collective female experience. At this particular cultural moment, though, the abuse narrative is a tired one: It feels like a shortcut to gravitas, a direct route to an Oprah-branded weightiness. This is not to belittle the experiences of anyone who has suffered abuse; it is only to note that from an entertainment standpoint, the subject's resonance has become increasingly dilute.
So it was with some disappointment that I realized that The Gray Sisters is another story whose defining motif is female trauma. Somehow, as the cental concern in "serious fiction" about women, rape has become a cliché.
That being said, there are undeniably powerful moments in The Gray Sisters, like when Valerie Stevens, who plays the childhood abuse victim, tries to explain to her 12-year-old son why being raped as a girl wasn't her fault—it's a bold and uncomfortable piece of writing, one whose freshness manages to momentarily distinguish The Gray Sisters from other popular discussions of abuse. Moments like these pervade the show, and the brutal honesty with which Third Rail's performers handle their material makes for some truly rattling, gut-punching scenes.
Actresses Valerie Stevens, Gretchen Corbett, Maureen Porter, and Stephanie Gaslin offer a diversity of ages and physical types (though not, it should be noted, of races), and a seemingly infinite range between them—as a showcase for their talents, The Gray Sisters succeeds unequivocally. Where it fails, though, is in meeting the requirement coined by Alison Bechdel in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (she was referring to movies, but it applies here): that two women talk to each other about something besides a man.