On a set flanked by a pair of identical shutters, two women introduce themselves to the audience as Michael (Tonya Beckman) and Mykal (Deidra LaWan Starnes). Flashing Crest Whitestrips smiles and sounding every inch the saleswomen they are, they pretend to parry questions about their unusually masculine names before raveling out deeper similarities: Both were adopted, are now in their 50s and work at shutter supply stores. That these women might be cosmically, if not chromosomally, related instantly crosses everyone’s minds but theirs.
Kathryn Kawecki’s obstacle course of a set maroons these women in a sea of boxes, as if to deflect the suspicion raised by the play’s own title. Before they so much as acknowledge each other with a glance, the two women spend an inordinate amount of time rolling through the brier patch of their pasts. One worked as an administrative assistant; the other studied to become a dental hygienist. Mykal, who is Black, was given up by her first adoptive family after they decided they preferred a White child. (Racism, that hobgoblin of little minds, streaks through more than one memory.) Yet for all these women’s divergences, we never dawdle in doubt that their lives will eventually converge. The play is polka-dotted with such echoes and coincidences-that-turn-out-to-be-more-than-coincidences that the events start to feel preordained less than halfway in.
To their credit, Beckman and LaWan Starnes work hard to individualize parts that feel both overdetermined and stiltedly schematic: Michael is a woman grieving her mother’s recent death, and Mykal is a perma-exasperated grandmother whose daughter has just been evicted from her home. Beckman, a stalwart of D.C. theater, especially finds pockets of pathos in a largely static pageant by striding purposefully to a caldera of despair without falling in. Still, it’s not enough to rescue a work that’s short on spontaneity and long on tedious narration: The women’s lives come together as neatly and unremarkably as the teeth of a zipper.
In its overlapping tales, “Shutter Sisters” put me in mind of David Auburn’s “Summer, 1976,” another two-hander about the friendship of a pair of middle-aged women that ran last year on Broadway. Despite top-shelf performances from its actors, that play, too, ceded too much space to diaristic moments of being, to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf. But while “Summer” mercifully confined itself to events of one season, its close spiritual sister takes a more elliptical approach to storytelling, swiveling from the loss of a dementia-addled parent to the birth of a child.
Not all of the recounted events are credible. In one scene, Mykal recalls the day her boss called her into her office to break “some pretty amazing news”:
“We want you to be the training manager for our new region.”
I didn’t understand what she was saying.
“We can’t offer much in terms of relocation. But we’re willing to reimburse $1,000 of your expenses.”
“I’m offering you a promotion, Mykal.”
At this juncture, Mykal is no green employee, but a woman who, in a previous job, felt entitled to a “senior position with my name all over it” and once had the chutzpah to march up to a Macy’s counter and brag to a sales associate that “I can make you three sales right now. And I can make more if you hire me!” That she fails to recognize a promotion until it’s spelled out on a billboard beggars belief.
The play, similarly, italicizes its themes, most of which are bluntly realized on Kawecki’s set that manages to be both busily semaphoric and strikingly inert. The moving boxes pull so much focus, they’re practically honorary members of the cast, while the seethingly symbolic tree that partially domes a barely suggested living space has unconvincing roots made of ropes.
Perhaps thinking of that tree and its wayward branches, Mykal says to her counterpart at the end of the play, “I’m starting to think maybe you get to decide what path you want to be on.” It’s a nice idea, but one that the play has shown us to be untrue: The permit for her life’s path was registered long ago.
Shutter Sisters, by Mansa Ra. Directed by Eric Ruffin. Sets, Kathryn Kawecki; costumes, Lynly Saunders; lighting, Adam Mendelson; sound, David Lamont Wilson. About 1 hour and 30 minutes. Through Feb. 18 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Rd., Tysons, Va. 1ststage.org.