The semiotics of the "Sister Cities" set

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The set of a play is more than just the background for the action.  In a black-box space like ours with no curtain, it's the first thing that an audience member knows about the play; it sets the tone and can lay down thematic foundations for the production.  Let's take a deep dive into what the Sister Cities set is telling us.

First let's just say: this is a fantastic set.  I mean, look at it:


Josh Brach, the show's technical director and set designer, gave a simple mission statement for the construction: "to embed a house, with all of its quirks, into our space, with all of its quirks." The attention to detail is noteworthy by itself, with the sunken living room / raised dining area (with wooden flooring!), the stairs to the second floor (thankfully off-stage), and the rich layer of set dressing provided by Jen Varga all conspiring to display to the audience not just a house, but a home.  One of the first things that you might notice after taking your seat is the wall of mostly childhood photos, immediately cuing the audience to expect a play where family -- growing up, growing apart -- is paramount.

The use of levels in the set serves multiple purposes.  One is the simple fact that theatre people like levels: actors and directors can use them to imply power relationships that reinforce (or undermine) those in the dialogue, or physically symbolize the separation of characters.  For instance, we have Austin dropping truth bombs to her sisters in the kitchen:


...while Dallas (who is held by her sisters to have trouble dealing with the messy parts of life) retreats to the living room:

The small difference in levels highlights Dallas's isolation in that sequence.  But the presence of the sunken living room also serves a purpose specific to this play: it highlights the predicament of Mary, the mother of the four sisters.


We learn part way through the play that Mary whad beens diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). This is a disease that slowly and eventually paralyzes people as a result of the brain not being able to communicate with the muscles of the body. Over time, as the muscles of the body break down, someone living with ALS will lose the ability to do things like walk around, verbally communicate and swallow.

Director Adrienne Dandy's vision in creating the set, designing Mary’s house to include so many different levels and stairs, was to allow the audience to picture what it might be like to have your world be slowly reduced: to a city, then a neighbourhood, then a house, then to only just a living room. Having this picture in the audiences’ mind will really help them sympathize and have compassion for what Mary was going through during her enfeeblement.

(As noted on the ALS Canada website, ALS is not contagious. There is no cure for ALS and also few treatment options for most people living with the disease. Approximately 80 per cent of people with ALS die within two to five years of being diagnosed. If you would like more information or to donate to the cause, please visit the ALS Canada website.)

Authors: Matt Walsh and Nicole Lemieux. Photographer: Josh Hoey.