- Martha or Mary? Anna Manahan plays both roles in the one-woman, two-role play Sisters.
Fresh from a home run at Dublin's City Theatre and soon to be headed to the Edinborough Festival in Scotland, Sisters is making a detour west for the Colorado Festival of World Theatre.
Based loosely on the biblical story of Mary and Martha -- one keeps the home fires burning while the other experiences the world -- the two-act play by Declan Hassett recalls the childhood and early lives of two women in rural Ireland in the 1950s.
Tony Award-winning actress Anna Manahan (Beauty Queen of Lenanne) plays both Martha and Mary in two acts that delineate the resentments, regrets and secrets of two women whose lives have taken very different turns.
Hassett wrote the play especially for Manahan who, in her eighties, is one of the great performers of the Irish stage, still bringing audiences to their feet.
Portraying both of the characters in a feature-length production was the challenge of a lifetime, says Manahan.
"[Hassett] wrote the play way back at the end of 1999, but I was never free to do it," she says, her enunciation crisp and her voice rich with experience. "Furthermore, it was a bit daunting to do a solo play with two characters. I thought that after a long career, I had experienced everything, until I came to this. It's very rare that an actor is asked to play two distinct characters on the same evening."
Manahan offers the highest praise to director Michael Scott, who also designed the lighting for Sisters.
"It's extraordinary in its simplicity and depth," she says. "His lighting has the power of words."
Irish audiences have embraced the play, says Manahan, for its rich storytelling.
"They've said to me, 'We love it, Anna,' because, you see, we're thirsty for stories. A lot of the plays we go to now are not stories. I think people are starved for real human stories in the theater."
Bringing people to a rousing response is important to Manahan -- her stage manager told her at a recent Sisters performance, "Anna, you're a rock star!" -- but she shuns the idea of celebrity. It's really about knowing your craft and doing it well, she says.
"It takes an awful lot of concentration to encompass an entire script alone, to hold an audience on your own. That takes a tremendous amount of energy. But it's not just that. It's a question of, will the spirit be with you that night? Will it reach out and grip and hold an audience?"
When it does, she says, there's nothing else like it.
Though the play has a dark side, it has humor as well, especially in the first act. In the second, when Manahan plays Mary, the play reaches moments of high drama.
"The curious thing about the Mary section is that I sit there and I'm looking out at blackness. I can't hear anybody breathing. It's as if we are one," she says. "There are moments in this play when there are quiet passages and a lovely stillness."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Louisa Center for the Performing Arts, 21 Broadmoor Ave.
Thursday, July 21, Friday, July 22, Saturday, July 23 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 24 at 3 p.m.
Tickets $40. Visit cfwt.org or call 475-1737.