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Phoenix Theatre DC’s Independence feels like a series of holiday get-togethers gone awry. Full of unrelenting tension and bile-laced dialogue, the play sucks you into the case study that is the Briggs family—consisting of three grown sisters and one unbalanced mother—from the very first scene. Oldest sibling Kess (Kimberley Cooper) returns to her childhood home in Iowa after four years free at the behest of middle sister Jo (Melissa Schwartz), who’s lured her successful sis back with claims that she’s laid up with a nearly broken neck (courtesy of Mom) and needs help running the house. What Jo, mother Evelyn (Lisa Lias), and 19-year-old Sherry (Sara Barker) really need, however, is Kess’ sane, familiar presence to offer an outside perspective and yank them out of their insular, self-destructive ways—and perhaps out of the house that’s been sheltering the Briggs women literally and figuratively for generations. Libby Sallaway transforms the DCAC’s tiny space into the airless living room of so many small-town families—afghan and knickknacks intact—and costume touches such as Evelyn’s ever-present housecoat, courtesy of Julia Robey, complete the impression of a family swaddled in fear: of change, of the unknown, of abandonment. Though the exchanges are often shrill (and, at two hours’ worth, a bit much to sit through), each actress passionately inhabits her character while falling just short of overacting—which is especially impressive in the case of Schwartz’s neurotic Jo and Cooper’s bitter Kess. The production is emotionally draining, and the ending’s sink-or-swim shot at redemption is hardly enough to alleviate the discomfort that precedes it; the play leaves you with a sickly feeling that only two of the women will walk away from the reunion unbroken. —Tricia Olszewski