Can Love Conquer All?

It's a smart, funny, fantastical ride, with moments of real insight and some genuinely profound echoes, but I found the politics of Paula Vogel's The Mineola Twins puzzling and a little disconcerting. Actually, my problem may be less with the script itself than with the way the playwright and director decided to frame it. In the play, the dichotomies of gay and straight, good and evil, and radical and conservative are represented by twin sisters Myra and Myrna.

My puzzlement began with a press-release quote from director Chip Walton. He says that the play is "a metaphor for the schizophrenic political nature of America; as much as the left and right may posture about their differences, they are ultimately two sides of the same political coin."

Sure they are -- if you think war and peace, shifting resources to the poor and shoveling them to the rich, believing in the innate goodness of humanity and insisting that people are inherently evil and require constant control are all two sides of the same coin.

The concept may make sense on some metaphoric or archetypal level. It does make sense in the specific context of this play if you believe -- and I do -- that sexual openness and sexual repression are intimately connected. But is sexuality all there is to political discourse? Is it the crux of the right/left division? I don't think so.

The first act of The Mineola Twins explores the psyches of a pair of twins who live in Mineola, New York, in the 1950s. These aren't the classic good-and-evil moppets we've seen in hundreds of television dramas; each contains elements of both good and evil. One is the wild, gum-chewing, sluttish and ultimately gay Myra; the other is the demure, poodle-skirted, cock-teasing would-be housewife Myrna. There's a flat, cartoonish quality to both script and performance at this point. Director Walton has chosen a selection of bouncy '50s music; the wigs (courtesy of Jeremy Cole) are that decade's quintessential hairdos, flaxen and swollen to monstrous proportions. Elizabeth Rainer plays both Myra and Myrna with frantic speed and energy. Despite this farcical atmosphere, we sense menacing undertones. The placid goings-on in '50s America took place in the shadow of the atom bomb, and absurd and comical as the bomb shelters and emergency school drills of that time now seem, the realization that human beings had the power to destroy entire cities and populations changed the national psyche forever. Vogel makes this clear through vivid dream sequences. In the first, a teenage Myra sees herself in the school cafeteria after a bomb attack (it's impossible not to think of Columbine as she describes the tangle of students' bodies on the floor). Guided by the sound of her twin's heartbeat, she's seeking out Myrna, who's desperately fleeing from her.

While it maintains the exaggerated style of the first, the second act has more emotional resonance. Myra becomes a '60s radical, though she's confused about what she's actually protesting against. She becomes involved in a bank robbery much like the one committed by Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army (though no one is killed), and she spends five years in prison. Myrna is a right-wing talk-show host. Each has borne a son. Naturally, Myrna's boy is a hippie who worships Aunt Myra, and Myra's is a Young Republican. Myra's attack on the bank is eventually mirrored by Myrna's decision to bomb an abortion clinic.

This play's emotional drive lies in its subtext, which -- I think -- has to do with the redemptive power of love. Specifically, love between women. Not only is Myra's relationship with her lover, Sarah, genuinely touching, but there's also a deep connection between the twins, who hear each other's voices in their heads, sometimes speak each other's thoughts , and tread endlessly the perilous line between love and hate.

The tension between the characters' shallow dialogue and their apocalyptic dreams, the play's fast, surreal logic and Vogel's brilliantly anarchic sense of humor -- which creates G-men who cavort like strippers -- all make for a fascinating and provocative evening of theater. Walton provides perceptive direction, and Elizabeth Rainer's portrayal of Myra-Myrna is vigorous and multifaceted. She gets good support from D. Covington as Jim and Sarah (you have to be there) and from Garret Glass -- definitely an actor to watch -- playing both sons. Set designer Michael R. Duran has made a comic strip of the stage, creating locales with names like Big Eats Diner and Koncerned Konservatives of America Radio Station. The only problem with the performance I saw was that the smoke machine used for the dream sequences had a vengeful life of its own, belching so much white mist into the auditorium that it was hard to focus on the brilliant dream monologues or to see the actress speaking them. I imagine this has been fixed by now.

In a talkback after the first night's performance, Paula Vogel said she had selected Mineola as a locale because it was the destination of the Long Island commuter train on which gunman Colin Ferguson murdered six passengers in 1993. She also made reference to the September 11 attacks and said she wondered if the sides represented by the sisters would move closer together in the face of the current crisis or further and further apart. But unless you think the twins represent dualities as broad as love and hate (and if you do, you've pretty much washed out all the play's particularities), these comparisons seem meaningless to me. The fanatics of al-Qaeda and the U.S. hawks currently pushing us into war are all religiously oriented and all right-wing. In other words, they're Myrna versus Myrna. So where's Myra in all this - Myra, who managed to be a '60s radical without ever figuring out there was a war on? Is she holding a peace sign at a demonstration? Working in a refugee camp? Or holding Sarah in the dark and weeping for her sister?

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman