Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The macabre facts of this case drew widespread attention, stirring interest among sociologists who considered it a cautionary example of the dangers posed by upper-class oppression of the working class. French writer Jean Gene loosely used the Pepin sisters as the basis of one of his best-known stage works, The Maids, produced in 1947 (and staged locally by Dark and Stormy Productions just last year). In 1981, American playwright Wendy Kesselman put her own stamp on the grizzly tale with My Sister in this House, winning wide approval upon its premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Playhouse in Louisville. Theatre Pro Rata has now mounted My Sister in this House in a sharply staged production with clear-eyed direction, take-no-prisoner performances, and striking design work.
We see the emotionally suffocating insularity of the two sisters, with Christine manipulating guileless Léa to cut her ties to their mother and place all of her devotion upon her older sister, then exerting control that crosses the line into abuse. Both Christine and Léa were placed by their mother in a convent to be raised by nuns, only to be pulled out when they were old enough to work and send money back home. Léa's dream of being hired to work in the same house as her older sister is realized, but her gratitude is overcast by Christine's ambivalence and unstable moods.
We also see the mental vacuity of the bourgeoise Madame Danzard and her adult daughter Isabelle, structuring their lives around what is or is not in fashion (clear nail polish or red?), which grand homes they have been invited to, and especially around the decorum of their household staff who are expected to get all their work done to exacting standards (complete with white glove tests for stray dust) being only briefly seen and seldom heard. It is as if the Madame and Isabelle would have little to fill their days if not for endlessly supervising and speculating on the private lives of their hired help.
The intensity of love that crosses all lines of sisterly devotion between the housemaids lies in stark contrast to the sterile existence of their employers, who halt mid-step in utter humiliation when caught dancing to a jaunty tune on the radio. At the same time, standards of propriety between master and servant that seem to serve all well at the onset, bit by bit turn toxic, setting the stage, as the masters increasingly watch the servants every move with suspicion rather than appreciation.
For all the dysfunctionality in both the mother-daughter and sister-sister relationships, and the slow but sure rise in tension and distrust between masters and servants, the horrific actions, when the occur, occupy their own universe, leaping from the stultifying atmosphere within the house to pure gothic mayhem. Knowing the historical case on which the play is based means that sooner or later this will occur, but the shock when it does is still palpable, given a chilling edge by Carin Bratlie Wethern's taut direction. Yet, it is hard to care about the fate of the Danzard women, nor to pity Christine who seemed to concocted her own madness. Léa garners our sympathy, kept as she is in a child-like state of mind, dependent on her sister's validation, but she seems too much a victim rather than a viable individual for us to invest in her future.
Kayla Dvorak Feld (as Christine) and Nissa Nordland Morgan (as Léa) weave a spell together in which both play a part in drifting into a dangerous, consumptive relationship. Feld creates the illusion of Christine's prim maternal instincts toward her younger sister, while churning up a swill of resentment and desire. Morgan instills Léa with child-like vulnerability that seems itself to be a ruse, a mask that allows her to respond in kind to Christine's unresolved pivot between constriction and carnality.
Katherine Kupiecki is splendid as Madame Danzard, trying her best to control every iota of her doltish daughter's life, spouting out absurd generalities about the goings on in the world outside their door. Her suggestion that they visit Paris, and subsequent series of reversals to make a case that it is best to stay at home, is a lesson in illogical thinking that passes for judgement. Nicole Goeden gives a solid performance as repressed Isabelle, making it apparent that she would like nothing better than for her mother to go up in a puff of smoke and begin to live her own life. P>Ursula K. Bowden has created a wonderful setting on the Crane Theater's stage. Laying out the main floor parlor and dining room of the Danzard's mansewhere Madame holds court, ringing a table bell to summon her maids, who enter, perform their task and leave with no one uttering a wordand a fully devised kitchen in which Christine and Léa work, Léa frequently demeaning herself for one or another act of clumsiness. A grand arched doorway leads to the outside world, while a rickety flight of stairs climbs up to the bedchamber shared by the sisters, with the steps continuing up beyond, as if without end. Shards of mirror hang from the ceiling, casting broken reflections of bits of the action, which is at times a distraction but which also indicates the fragmentation of these women's lives. Emmet Kowler has devised lighting that guides us from scene to scene, and contributes to the gothic feel of the drama.
Samantha Kuhn Stewart's costume designs are witty and somewhat outrageous, at least for Madame Danzard who seems to mistake high fashion with garish. Of the two servants, Christine's black and white costume has an apron front composed of black and white vertical bars, as if she is a prisoner within her uniform, while Léa's has the look of an eternal school girl never allowed to grow up. The application of make-up is very well done in this production as well, with Isabelle's brazenly roughed cheeks and the dark rings around Christine's eyes seeming to grow more sinister with every scene.
All of these elements are assembled by director Wethern, with the narrative paced to allows years to pass by easily, as the imperiousness of the masters and the madness of the servants move gradually but perceptibly toward their cataclysmic end. Throughout the course of My Sister in this House, the slightest phrase, gesture, or action would increase my feeling of dread for what lay ahead.
Although this production has a bounty of praise-worthy elementsthe performances, the design work, the stagingthe play itself left me wanting. There are a number of oddities in the narrative that arise out of nowherea pink sweater that creates a commotion, for instanceand we are at a disadvantage not knowing more about the home life that led to the symbiotic relationship between Christine and Lea. In the actual Pepin Sisters case, the household they worked for included Madame Danzard's husband, a role never spoken of, let alone present, in Kesselman's play. How does the absence of a male figure change the dynamics? Given the characters lack of redeeming qualities I felt unmoved by the outcome, even with a nod to the sociological arguments regarding oppressed working classes and repressed female sexuality. Yet, the tale is well played by Theatre Pro Rata in a production that will impress even if the play fails to inspire.
My Sister in this House , through June 16, 2019, at Theatre Pro Rata, Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $12.00 - $15.00. For more information and tickets call 612-234-7135 or visit theatreprorata.org.
Playwright: Wendy Kesselman; Director, Fight and Intimacy Choreographer: Carin Bratlie Wethern; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Samantha Kuhn Staneart; Lighting Design: Emma Kowler; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Jenny Moeller; Dramaturg: Christine Kit Gordon; Stage Manager: Clara Costello
Cast: Kayla Dvorak Feld (Christine), Nicole Goeden (Isabelle), Katherine Kupiecki (Madame Danzard), Nissa Nordland Morgan (Léa). Voiceovers: Andy Chambers, Ben Tallen. Clarence Wethern.