Three sisters in their 40s spar with one another and discover a long-held secret as they pack up their childhood home after the death of their mother in the new play “April, May & June,” now running at Theatre 40 on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.
Playwright Gary Goldstein described the sisters, whose names make up the title, as a study in contrasts. June (Meredith Thomas), the youngest, is a lesbian who has just broken up with her lover. He characterized her as more free-spirited and brasher than her siblings but said she must learn to better connect with people.
May (Jennifer Taub), the middle sister, is the subject of numerous jokes regarding middle child syndrome.
“She’s kind of the caregiver and the mediator, and wants to take care of everybody and never to be left out,” said Goldstein, who also writes for film and television and is a freelance film critic and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times. “And I think she needs to learn more confidence and to trust herself a little bit more, and I think she does through this experience.
“And then April (Jennifer Lee Laks), who’s the oldest sister, is the one who’s large and in charge and has always been kind of a substitute mother for her sisters in some respects as they were growing up. And she needs to let go and loosen up, and deal with her own life better than she has. So, I think it’s kind of a classic structure for three sisters.”
Goldstein added that, just as the three have very different personalities, they each view their childhood differently.
“April was the most critical of her parents, and particularly of the mother, because she disagreed with the way her mother approached life. She just felt that the mother didn’t have high enough standards, as she called them, and just moved through life without really having goals and having great taste — the things that she, April, the adult April, came to value.
“She tried to do everything to not have the life that the mother lived, as a person and a wife, and found herself, inadvertently, in a bit of the same boat as her mother,” Goldstein said. “When she looks back on it now, there’s this realization.”
On the other hand, the playwright said, May looks back with much more forgiveness and wants for herself what she feels could have been between her parents. “As a result, she somehow knows how to love, how to make it work with her husband, because it was kind of an anti-example that the parents set.”
As for June, Goldstein sees her as falling somewhere between the other two. “She’s very blunt about how the house they lived in was not a great house, and the mother didn’t have great taste in terms of furniture and things like that, and how the father was an alcoholic, among all the things she witnessed,” he said. “And yet, she was not as critical. It was not a matter of being critical of the parents — it was just a matter of being honest about the parents. She saw what she saw, they were what they were, and her takeaway from her childhood was just to go off on her own, create her own life, and be who she was.”
Goldstein has given the sisters a Jewish father and a half-Jewish mother and set the action on Long Island, N.Y. However, he believes the situation could take place anywhere and is universal enough to be about families of any ethnicity. He said he grew up in a mildly observant family, and he writes Jewish characters whenever it makes sense to him to do so.
“I think there’s a unique warmth and connection that Jewish siblings have. I don’t want to be general about it, but I think there’s some very basic emotional things that made sense to me to make them Jewish,” Goldstein said.
He continued, “If I weren’t Jewish, would I have written them Jewish? Probably not. I probably wouldn’t even think about it. If there is anything autobiographical in it, I think some of the emotions and some of the references and things certainly do come from growing up Jewish. It turns the stereotype on its ear because of the kind of person the mother was. She was not what you would think of as the typical Jewish mother.”
In fact, the revelation about the mother that comes at the climax of the play stuns the sisters and brings them closer together as they learn she was not as pedestrian as she seemed. Goldstein hopes the story will inspire audiences to find out as much as they can about their own parents while they still are alive, and also to work on whatever they never reconciled with a parent who is gone.
“When we’re younger, we don’t always think about all the ramifications of the people who’ve always been in our lives,” he said. “But as you get a little older, you really look back and you want to know more about them. There are so many unanswered questions I have about my family members that are no longer alive, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t do the work to try to learn more, even when they’re not here. So, never give up on the memories of people who are gone, because there’s always something to learn about them.”