These sketched-out scenes of a real-life tragedy relate the raw harshness of 1840s Auckland settler life: dirt floors, public hangings and passers-by humiliating those locked in the stocks at the bottom of Queen St.
But the production itself, written and directed by Michelanne Forster, uses simple touches to create beauty: the small stage is partially lit by two lines of jar candles, and the action opens with the three actors singing the Irish folk tune As I roved out as a wonderful three-part harmony.
The song's line about being "me mother's darling" is changed to "sister's darling". "My sister broke my heart," narrates Sophia (Torum Heng) at the beginning.
But then, she always knew she would; "I told you so" oozes out of Sophia's every pore. She is a sensible and judgemental Martha at the hearth, while her sister Maggie (Jess Sayer) is a scatty, wandering Mary. The characters are rather underwritten, and the neon anvil hammering on Maggie's drinking problem never lets up.
Some things never change, it seems: drink too much, and fall in with a bad lot, and you'll be puking up all over downtown, whether it's the 1840s or Police Ten 7.
It's not long before an unknown quantity called Joe (an intense Chris Tempest) has caught Maggie's eye.
Sophia: "Does he have a trade?" Maggie: "He's good-looking!"
But an exchange between Joe and Maggie quickly and cleverly establishes their see-saw between violence and reassurance. And when things get quiet, Tempest carries real menace. This is an hour-long glimpse of history, and of the unforgiving nature of society before we ruined all unbending certainties by inventing psychology and human rights.
Always My Sister runs until June 21 at the Basement.