SHUTTER SISTERS tells an emotional yet heartwarming tale at Tysons's 1st Stage

By: Feb. 05, 2024

SHUTTER SISTERS, currently having its regional premiere at Virginia’s 1st Stage, tells the tale of two women leading parallel lives - one white and one black. The white woman, named Michael (played by Tonya Beckman), is grieving for her recently deceased adopted mother while simultaneously navigating the difficult interpersonal relationships within her adopted family. The black woman, named Mykal (played by Deidra LaWan Starnes), is coming to terms with her new chapter of life as an empty nester - and all the fits and starts that come with that. As a press release from the theatre notes, it’s “a surrealist journey through womanhood, identity, and what it means to belong.”

The play begins a bit awkwardly - there’s a direct address to the audience that is out of place with the rest of an otherwise solid script by playwright Mansa Ra. It’s a tiresome device, and it makes one wonder if the playwright is apologizing for this play and what’s about to happen. However, audiences should take comfort in the fact that Ra never again resorts to such tricks during the play’s remaining 89 or so minutes, and things undoubtedly get better from here.

Once we officially meet our two Michaels/Mykals, we begin to understand the myriad of ways in which their lives are different but parallel and strangely connected. There is, of course, the obvious - their names are pronounced the same way but spelled differently. There’s a nice bit of humor here when the two women address having a traditional boy's name - “gender is collapsing construct.” And so it is, Michael/Myklal!

The similarities continue once we learn both women are adopted and aged somewhere in their 50s. They also have a central struggle they must overcome during the play. For Michael (Tonya Beckham), it's the familial tension rife with difficult interpersonal relationships. For Mykal, she struggles to find her sense of identity and grapples with the tension from her relationship with her daughter. Additionally, both work for Shirley’s Shutters, a store specializing in recreational pontoon boats. That’s a joke. It’s shutters. Shirley’s has been good to these two women, and it’s a company that does right by its employees, which is certainly a refreshing storyline for a play being produced in 2024. 

The women volley the action back and forth to color in backstories, childhood traumas, and present-day struggles. We come to learn that Michael (Beckman) has just lost her adopted mother to dementia. While she’s accepted that the mother she once knew has been gone since the illness took over, Michael is surprised the grief still comes just the same. It’s mainly because of her mother’s death, for sure, but perhaps also because Michael has become estranged from the rest of the family. Once her mother got sick, Michael decided the pain of watching a parent die was just too much and her visits home became more scarce. The rest of the family has not taken kindly to this, which causes expected tension at the funeral. Michael must now reckon with her choices on top of the immense grief she feels. 

Her grief isn’t all bad, though, as it does motivate her to seek answers about where she came from and the family that raised her. This leads to some interesting connections and chance encounters that make for a beautiful and deeply emotional payoff. 

Existing in parallel to Michael both physically on stage and metaphysically, Mykal (Deidra LaWan Starnes) is a divorced woman who has recently become a grandmother. Her daughter, now a mother as well, is stumbling into her late 20s, and Mykal’s empty nester status quickly becomes jeopardized. We get the sense there have been many exceptions made for this daughter before, but she may be closing in on her last chance. Despite this tension, it’s a time of excitement for Mykal. She’s been promoted at Shirley’s Shutters and is being relocated to a different region, hence the sea of moving boxes adorning the set. 

As she packs up her life and reflects on the years of memories, one can’t help but notice the metaphor Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki has laid out for us with these moving boxes. Mykal’s entire life has been nothing but a series of moving boxes. As an adopted child with more than one family along the way, she’s haunted by a sense that you can’t get too comfortable in any one place. Unpack the boxes at your own peril for you could get sent away tomorrow. Change has defined her life and taken its toll on her as an adult. It’s this childhood trauma that creates the Mykal we get to know throughout the play, but it also means we meet a person with incredible resilience and determination as well.

While the two characters lead parallel lives, they are unique people in so many ways. Both Starnes and Beckman do a fine job of creating deeply rich characters here. Ra’s script gives the players quite the bounty, and it doesn’t hurt that we’re watching two veterans of the DC stage at work to a masterful degree.

Beckman’s Michael is the personification of a warm cup of tea at night with a little drop of honey - she’s caring, deeply empathetic, and honest. However, the character is unintentionally a little self-serving at times. She can’t seem to always sense when it's her own self-interest motivating her even though, in her mind, she’s doing good for others. Beckman understands the nuance here, and she’s a delight to watch. 

Starnes’s Mykal is quite the contrast. She’s spunky, resilient, wears her heart on her sleeve, and is even a self-described “hippie” at times. However, she’s still working through her feelings as an adopted child who is all too familiar with rejection. Starnes is undoubtedly an expert storyteller, and she gets a chance to flex these muscles with Ra’s script. Still, it's the softer, deeper parts of the character where Starnes “bull-in-a-china-shop” approach to the character doesn’t quite work. Her Mykal’s expressiveness borders on pantomime in certain moments that would benefit from a lighter touch, and the audience misses out on golden opportunities to connect with the character on a deeper level. 

Despite this struggle to find the right tone at times, Beckman and Starnes are electric in their scenes together. As an audience member behind me commented as the play began, “This will be a masterclass in acting.” It is quite that when these two forces collide in the play’s final moments, especially. As one character comments, these two adopted women have “put together an identity from scratch” and have “never seen a person [they] resemble.” These are feelings that only adopted children know intimately, and it’s an emotional journey to watch these women navigate these challenges and arrive at the play’s conclusion. When we get there, it’s an elusive sense of acceptance that seems to warm the many moving boxes on stage as the women look toward their future. Acceptance of themselves, their situation, and the women they have become and will be. 

And the best part? They look out the window and through - what else - their shutters.

This regional premiere production of SHUTTER SISTERS is directed by Eric Ruffin. Other creative team members include Jaida Gillespie (Asst. Director), Kathryn Kawecki (Scenic Designer), Adam Mendelson (Lighting Designer), Niya John (Asst. Lighting Designer), David Lamont Wilson (Sound Designer), Pauline Lamb (Prop Designer), Lynly Saunders (Costume Design), and Sarah Usary (Stage Manager).

SHUTTER SISTERS runs from now until February 18, 2024, at 1st Stage Theater in Tysons, VA. The show runs for 90 minutes with no intermission.

Photo Credit: Tonya Beckman as Michael and Deidra LaWan Starnes as Mykal in ‘Shutter Sisters.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.