Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother
By Elyse Sommer
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. That phrase is the most enduring legacy of Synanon, a controversial experiment in a utopian society. It was coined by Charles Dederich, the movement's late leader and founder and the "Big Brother" of Deborah Swisher's solo memory play about her childhood as a member of the Northern California commune. At eighteen, after eleven years as a group member, Swisher used Dederich's adage to give herself the courage to spend the rest of her life outside the confines of "The Group" ( the generic name she uses until the end when she identifies it as Synanon).
Ms. Swisher, now in her early thirties has structured her story as a flashback in which she portrays herself and nine other characters who include her mother, sister, friends, mom's boy friend, the teacher -- or, as the group jargon would have it, "demonstrator". She does not whitewash the mind control exercised by this and other cults but neither is this an angry expose; in fact, it's made plain that there were many positive aspects to the Group, especially during the early years. In her case, the child who had failed to master reading in the public school learned to read in two weeks in the non-traditional Group school. The commune environment was also more nurturing for children of a bi-racial or "tie-died together" relationship (her alcoholic African-American father's family shunned her Jewish mother).
While the cult is what this is all about, the perspective is that of a young child and young adult which gives it the universality of a coming of age story. In deference to the Group's insistence on communal rather than nuclear family loyalties, Deborah was separated for long periods from her mother, who lived in the grown up section known as the "adultery". Having hundreds of sisters also distanced Deborah from her real sister. The pain of these separations is all there. However, Swisher is less outraged proselytizer than gentle satirist. Thus she trains her playwright's lens on some of the easy to spoof rituals like "the game", a regular anything goes forum to express negative and hostile feelings not allowed "outside the game". There's also "the Bench", a sort of time out for adults and sample broadcasts from the Group's internal radio network, "the wire". Yet, no matter how gentle the criticism, when "the game" turns on teenaged Debbie and she becomes "damaged goods", it's more frightening than funny. Her very public loss of her virginity to a fatuous young man (also played by Swisher) foisted on her by her communal family is hilarious, but again, only to a point. A scene where she agrees to shave her head is another of the more frightening than funny demonstration of group conformity.
Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother is certainly an unusual story and the author-performer's even-handed good humor and likeable presence invests it with warmth and credibility. While Ms. Swisher is best when she plays herself, she adeptly differentiates all the other characters.
The play, which arrives at the Harold Clurman after several incarnations elsewhere (e.g., on the West Coast, at Here), is smoothly directed by Elyse Singer. Zhanna Gurvich's simple set enhaced by Roger Hanna's projections serves the story well, as does Kenneth L. Schutz's lighting and Lewis Flinn's original music and sound design.
The decision to eliminate an intermission and trim the play to an uninterrupted 90 minutes was a wise one. To be honest, an additional ten minutes would have gone far to avoid moments when this one-person play, like so many within this genre, makes one wonder if this might work better as a more abbreviated television or club routine.