Paula Vogel’s The Mineola Twins opened off-Broadway in 1999. But the play still feels relevant even if, in the interim, certain quirky character details have been overworked into clichés elsewhere in popular culture. It’s only time that has padded the twins’ opposing polarities with a comfortable sense of familiarity. Like some eligible voters in this country, twin sisters Myra and Myrna (Elissa Beth Stebbins in both roles) can’t prevent their private neuroses from governing their deep-seated political opinions. Although the two women grow up sharing a bedroom in the Long Island suburb of Mineola, N.Y., their moral compasses are never aligned.
Myra represents the left-leaning values of blue-state America, Myrna the right. While the playwright doesn’t rely on these stereotypes, the burden of shaping Myra and Myrna into distinct individuals rests on the ingenuity of the actress playing them. With the help of several wigs, and some clever delaying tactics during the entr’actes, Stebbins delivers what is, in effect, a two-woman show. On opening night, there were moments when she struggled with a couple of lines but that didn’t detract from the work she’d done to create the illusion of playing two different people. Vogel gives each twin a messy, emotional life that the actress was adept at and unafraid of conveying.
Neither woman is at peace with herself, her desires or ambitions. Dramatically speaking, that’s a blessing. There are no great story arcs of psychological transformation nor are there ones handing out easy enlightenment. Myra and Myrna remain engaged with thorny issues and causes throughout their lives, but unconsciously so. If asked why they believe the things they do, whether pro-choice or anti-abortion for example, it’s not clear that they’d be able to provide any answer other than the one approved by the party line.
In her own way, each twin reacts to or against the societal norm and expected role young women had to play as they came of age in the 1950s. Myrna inflates the golden-haired ideal of a Doris Day type to extremes. Myra rebels against that image until it smashes to bits. Both approaches fail to make either one whole. The Mineola Twins has maintained its staying power because it isn’t simply a shrill polemic against conservative Myra and her cohorts. Vogel shrewdly constructs a sympathetic portrayal of two girls, then women, coping badly with life’s many ongoing frustrations.
Early on Myra betrays Myrna, who never quite recovers from the shock of her sister’s skill at causing harm, and her subsequent indifference to the consequences. Vogel inserts three nightmares into the narrative. Each one of these surreal and poetic scenes alludes to the unspoken anxieties the twins suffer from in their waking hours — being too close to each other, or too far apart. Their father is mentioned once in passing as a taciturn soul who seldom spoke. The mother takes up no psychological space whatsoever. This dysfunctional family leaves the girls ill-equipped at trusting one another. They don’t bother with intimacy because they’ve never seen it before.
Myra and Myrna’s story does also work as a metaphor for politics — the left and the right refuse to compromise for the sake of some greater good. Political parties that vie for power hinder and foil each other’s plans the way the twins do. But Vogel sidesteps the 24-hour news cycle of warring punditry by looking underneath the partisan masks. At times, these siblings may behave vindictively, petulantly, monstrously but neither woman is reduced to being just a monster.
The Mineola Twins, through Oct. 29, at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St. 415-525-1205 or cuttingball.com