A family reunion precipitated by a funeral is familiar territory, but beyond its premise, nothing about this taught, emotionally charged drama is predictable.
Keepsake is an intense, claustrophobic experience. From the intimate setting of the Red Lion Theatre, where no one is more than a few feet away from the action, to the fraught, complicated relationship between the two leads, who skirt around each other and their past with mounting intensity, it’s hard to look away.
At the play’s heart are two sisters, whose characters also seem, on first meeting them, a familiar contrast. Abra (Dilek Rose) is the responsible elder sibling, holding her family together with grim determination. Samara (Lou Broadbent) is the unpredictable, unreliable runaway, who arrives home in Massachusetts just in time for her father Yassir’s funeral, but seems always on the point of flight. Both performances are compelling, their relationship entirely believable – anyone who has a sibling will recognise the quick shifts between irritation, affection, rivalry and understanding.
Though everything takes place in one room – the family kitchen – the play moves through several different times, the layers of one family’s history slowly unravelling through little more than changes of lighting and subtle sound effects. The set is wonderfully detailed – I’m told by the American friend who came with me that it was perfect, right down to the paper sizes, plug sockets, and Dunkin’ Doughnuts mug.
The play is dominated by dialogue, behind which the spectre of Yassir (Allon Sylvain) is ever present. A door, leading to the basement where we learn he committed suicide, becomes an increasingly heavy presence which the women edge around uneasily, while Yassir himself appears periodically in flashback, alongside Dilek Rose doubling as her character’s mother. These moments could be jarring, in the middle of such taught scenes, but they’re done smoothly, cleverly using props as links. Yassir’s coat appears on a table, the keepsake box he once gave Samara on a sideboard, and in one particularly effective moment, the mother whips off her headscarf, the lights go up, and she’s her daughter again.
The tension builds unbearably, thanks to powerful performances and a beautifully structured script, until we’re questioning almost everything we initially assumed about the two sisters and their relationship with their father. Somehow, within this, there are also moments of brilliant comedy.
The pressure is relieved by the entrance of James Corscadden’s Danny, who brings a new, dangerous energy. It’s a welcome mood change, but from here the scenes drift slightly into melodrama – the last twist in particular feels too much, too late to add much to what has already been created.
Towards the end, there is a sense that Gregory Beam’s script loses confidence in its own simplicity. The same occasionally feels true of the directing – there’s a lot of distracting musical chairs, as though a character’s sitting still for too long might bore us. By the second half, I was desperate to whip away some of the furniture. Still, despite losing its way in the final moments, this is a startling, atmospheric play, well worth experiencing while you can.
Reviewed by Sarah Day