Holding on to the past can weigh upon a family. In her first play, Keep, Francesca Pazniokas explores how the emotional weight of a missing woman burdens her three sisters. Keep is inspired by her years of struggling to mask an addiction to hoarding. The production centers on a young hoarder, Naomi (Kim Krane), and her older sisters, Jane (Madison Comerzan) and Kara (Jenna D'Angelo). As Jane and Kara attempt to clean Naomi’s cramped apartment, they learn about what happened to their sister, Margo (Leslie Marseglia), who disappeared some years earlier. No, Jane and Kara do not find Margo’s decaying body underneath Naomi’s rug. Instead, they discover how disconnected their sisterhood has become.
Naomi does not sleep much and spends most of her time within a small area of her apartment, surrounded by junk and next to her filthy mattress. Jane and Kara arrive, and the three women blend together. They give bland first impressions as characters and are not easily distinguishable. Shortly after, Jane is revealed as more than a doting, artificial suburbanite who affectionately calls Naomi “Nooni”; she’s a lesbian who is in a relationship with a psychiatrist. Kara takes on a reckless and commanding leadership role and demands that the apartment be cleaned. Meekly, Naomi follows along with uncluttering her apartment and goes in and out of spouting incoherent passages like, “A rabbit, I think. A rabbit kicks a clot of blood and it–or someone boils it. I’m trying to remember. I think it was a rabbit.”
What doesn’t ring true is the sense of an actual intervention like those shown on an episode of A&E’s addictive television show Hoarders. The twist that is offered in Keep does not cure Naomi of her hoarding disorder. Other disorders like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and depression can be associated with hoarding. It is ambiguous if Naomi is struggling with any of these associated disorders or if she is just schizophrenic or bipolar. Hoarders are likely to be more guarded and attached to their items than Naomi’s passive nature indicates, and so Naomi’s hoarding disorder lacks some credibility. Although director Stephanie C. Cunningham brings out the sense of loss the sister feel, perhaps she could have urged bolder character choices.
The play is supposed to take place somewhere along the East Coast during the transition from winter to spring, but this is also ambiguous. Set designer Alfred Schatz creates a hoarder’s haven, with stacks of unpacked moving boxes, piles of old mail, and random pieces of furniture. It is like an antique store that has been turned into a storage unit. The set becomes enchanting after Margo appears, when lighting designer Cate DiGirolamo transforms the ceiling into a sparkling starry night.
The storytelling techniques used to show how these three sisters deal with the loss of Margo is the real value of this 80-minute production. Though they start out seeming indistinguishable, it becomes clear that Naomi lives in the past, Kara lives in the present, and Jane lives in the future. The distance between the three of them also brings them together because the separation reminds them of the intimacy they all once shared. Only Naomi really knows what happened to Margo, but, through the help of Jane and Kara, Naomi eventually reveals the truth.
Although simple and subtle, the play lands like a character study, without strong motivations from the characters. Because the characters do not coherently or explicitly stand for something, it is the plot that eventually moves the discussion forward. Pazniokas aims to dive deep into America’s “disposable society” and the value of human life, but lands somewhere between vaguely characterizing mental illness and grief.
The production is more successful at conveying how young women cope with isolation and alienation. The sisters’ disconnection is not due to modern technology or even mental illness in Keep, but because these characters have withheld who they really are from one another for so many years. The bonds of sisterhood began disintegrating after Margo left; the absent sister is the only one who frees herself of this burden but is unsuccessful at transforming her sisters—and this is where the true divide lives. Keep reminds theatergoers that the affinity shared between sisters can be powerful and ephemeral.
Keep runs until April 30 at the TGB Theatre (312 West 36 St., between 8th and 9th avenues) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; there is an additional performance on April 27 at 8 p.m. There are no matinees. Tickets cost $18. To purchase tickets, call 800-411-8881 or visit BrownPaperTickets.com.