Horror doesn't always announce its arrival; it can overtake us gradually. Few occupants of Germany in the years after World War I, for example, could have predicted the Holocaust, although in retrospect the signs look so clear.
In Janet Schlapkohl's play "My Sister," at the Odyssey Theatre, two sisters struggle to make a living in 1930s Berlin, where the National Socialist Party has recently taken control. Magda is a hospital nurse by day who performs in a cabaret at night; her identical twin, Matilde, has cerebral palsy and stays in their one-room apartment, writing jokes and songs for Magda's act.
Portrayed by the luminous real-life twins Emily (Magda) and Elizabeth (Matilde) Hinkler, the sisters share a poignant intimacy. But they react differently to the changes they observe. Magda, obliged to make their living, lets herself believe that patients who vanish from the hospital have been sent away for cures and that "sterilization helps mental patients"; she edits Matilde's edgy political jokes onstage to conform to the restrictive new regime.
Matilde, who listens to a contraband shortwave radio, is leerier of the Nazis. Rebellious, brainy and prone to astringent jokes ("It's incurable," she says when Magda chastises her), she is aware that she is vulnerable. Although neither twin has any real idea of what's coming, the audience does; and this knowledge invests their girls' exchanges with weighty symbolism.
"My Sister" ran in a shorter version at the Hollywood Fringe Festival last year, directed by Paul David Story; the Odyssey's artistic director, Ron Sossi, worked with Schlapkohl to expand the script, and he co-directs this production.
More cabaret scenes have been added, with original music by Christopher Gene Okiishi, lyrics by Schlapkohl and the piano accompaniment of musical director Barbara Rottman. Intended to convey the louche, decadent night life of Weimar culture, these numbers feel a bit tame and lackluster -- and even extraneous. The soul of the play lies in the girls' interactions in their cozy if spare apartment (designed by Pete Hickok). We watch what turns out to be Magda's first stage show; then we watch her reenact it back in the apartment for Matilde, who eagerly mouths the words along with her; the second performance might work better without the first.
The script has been lovingly researched and engineered for maximum pathos; it can feel at times tendentious. But the Hinkler sisters, who both studied acting at the University of Iowa (Schlapkohl, then an MFA candidate, wrote this play specifically for them), bring the roles vividly to life with their committed and endearing performances.