Theatre review: "Independence" by Lee Blessing. Directed by David Hsieh. Produced by Repertory Actors Workshop at the Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S. Fridays-Sundays through Aug. 4; 206-364-3283.
This is a story about three daughters and their different ways of struggling to achieve independence from an unstable, manipulative, but pitifully lonely mother.
The youngest, Sherry (Colleen Parker) is breaking all the rules and just waiting - with much impatience and no sense of guilt - for her high school graduation. The middle one, Jo (Caroline Leim), is the homebody and seems at first to be permanently tied to her mother's apron strings. The eldest, Kess (Kathy Hsieh), is gay and an academic in the big city, and the play opens with her return after an angry four-year silence.
Not much happens. Kess shows up; old friendships and old demons are revived; the result is mainly a lot of knotty, abrasive talk. There is just the smallest narrative twist at the end, but it is not the denoument or point of the play. The point, rather, is that we all have to become independent of our parents, and that all ways of doing it are cruel from the parents' point of view. Blessing's characters talk about and around this issue so well that no other narrative is necessary.
All four actresses stumble over their lines from time to time, but all four carry emotional conviction, and they sound like a real family. Lisa Marie Nakamura portrays the mother, Evelyn, as a paradox: a controller who ultimately is powerless. But the most demanding part is Jo, who both moment by moment and in the course of the play undergoes the most profound psychological changes.
Kristianne Zak's costumes differentiate the daughters nicely. Jo favors plaid shirts and leisure pants; Kess has a crisp shirt, striped suit pants and suspenders; Sherry flounces around the house in a dilk robe and boxer shorts.
Fitting out this small-town Midwest story with an Asian-American cast could have been an attempt to turn Blessing's play into a daring statement about the special isolation of racial minorities.
Wisely, though, David Hsieh directs it straight: the ethnicity of the actors is meant to be, and becomes, simply irrelevant.
Much to his credit, Hsieh concentrates on Blessing's words, and by choosing a deliberate pace, slower than you might expect in many scenes, he gives them enough space to do their work. His set underlines the point: The hat stand, the aspidistra and the crocheted, white couch cover are homages to the original, not reinterpretations of it.