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Piece it together 

by Michael Bowen

In the Firth Chew Studio Theatre at the Civic the other night, they put on a brand-new play that intelligently probes the relationship between two sisters. The performance is well directed and well acted. And the play itself is crafted well; clearly, the dramatist knows how to use the capabilities of the stage. In short, it had all the ingredients.

And there were 56 people in the audience.

That's a shame, because folks should get out and see Jigsaw in its early stages, just so they can say they knew it when -- back before the play receives the future at other theaters it definitely deserves. (Granted, the Studio could only hold about another 30 people, but still.)

Playwright Sandra Hosking has written a very loosely autobiographical tale. The elder sister is a nurse who's even more protective of her younger sibling than she is of her patients at the hospital. Still fuming over the mother who deserted them years ago, Sissy acts as substitute maternal overseer for the younger sister, Toni. She's the supposedly fragile creature whose legs dangle lifelessly as she scoots around in her wheelchair. Sissy disapproves of her boyfriend's friend, Toni's friend and indeed of nearly everything her sister tries to do -- in short, Sissy frowns on just about everything. Some disabilities you can't see, but they're still there. Toni may be confined to a wheelchair, but Sissy is likewise confined in her own less tangible way.

Toni, idealistic and cheerful, wants a boyfriend; Sissy has one, but is uncertain of her future with him. Both are haunted by memories of their irresponsible, escapist mother. We sometimes see Sissy at work with one of her elderly patients. And that's the play. But what rich potential this play has.

Director Susan Hardie has collaborated with Hosking to create some effective theatrical episodes. From the moment a spotlight comes up on Sissy, engrossed by a puzzle (guess what kind) and Toni wheels into her pool of light, we know that we're in for some interesting characterizations.

The acting of all the cast members is capable, but the highlight is Elizabeth D. Leadon as Toni, the wheelchair-bound free spirit who won't accept any unnecessary limitations. She's irrepressible, exuding confidence as she propels herself around the stage, earning her "Hell on Wheels" nickname. It's a mark of this actor's talent that she can make us believe both the idealistic and the despondent Toni, the still-little girl who yearns for a long-gone mother and the young adult who is yet afraid of success in the craft she values most. Leadon shows us the love of fun, the quirkiness, the insecurities and passion -- in short, the humanity -- of disabled persons everywhere. From the laborious way in which she pulls herself in and out of her chair, to the joy she conveys over little surprises, Leadon's is a delightful, well-observed performance.

Though the given name of the possessive elder sister is Cecilia, the nickname Sissy fixes her in her role as sister and caretaker of Toni. In the role, Kate Vita gets to act as the play's narrator figure, and she is at her best in these understated solo scenes. Vita shows us the concern and love that Sissy has for Toni, especially in the monologues; elsewhere, her smothering anger can sometime seem too abrupt or strident.

Karen Noble shows up late in the play as the mother of these two sisters. All carefree in her scarves and leopard-print blouse, she barges into their lives after years of absence. Hosking has nevertheless written maternal wisdom and kindness into the part, and Noble nails both the blowzy indifference and the fleeting concern. It's a convincing performance.

And now, somebody call for a rewrite. Alan, Sissy's guy, is too one-dimensional. Barry E. Wallace plays him as nice, and plays him well -- but niceness is all this character gets to express. Hosking has demonstrated her ability to show both sides of all her characters -- even Mrs. Beasley (Pamela E. Long), dying in the hospital from cancer, can be both cranky and kind. But Alan is, well, just too nice a guy. For credibility, he needs a flaw.

The reconciliation scenes in the play's second half go on too long, veering toward sentimentality. There's a mother-with-boyfriend scene that seems predictable. With lines like, "What are you, my mother?" and "Why don't you want me to have a life?" the script sometimes gets too pointed in conveying its themes. And with people wishing upon stars and slamming into each other like Mack trucks, there were a few too many clich & eacute;s for my taste.

But these are small complaints when measured against Hosking's and Hardie's achievements. So come on -- get out and fill a seat in the Studio.

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