BRITTLE WOMEN

Four women inhabit a mansion in hell (provincial France circa the 1930s), and the horror they experience there is as dark as it gets on earth. Wendy Kesselman's relentless exploration of class hatred and oppression in My Sister in This House amounts to an important modern tragedy of almost mythic proportions. Mysterious and powerful, the play offers two of the most intriguing female roles to come along in ages. The other two roles aren't as well-developed, and the play suffers from its own righteous indignation. But the CityStage Ensemble production under David Quinn's intense, intelligent direction is utterly engrossing and deadly serious--a nightmare with a female face, moving inexorably to its ghastly conclusion.

As the play opens, young Lea writes to her beloved older sister, Christine, about her new place as a maid in a wealthy household. The girl is perhaps thirteen or fourteen and very shy. Her older sister writes back affectionately, and it's clear that the two girls love each other. But a dark cloud hangs over them in the person of their mother, an apparently evil woman (whom we never meet) who has rejected Christine and who exploits both girls, taking their wages and removing them from their comfortable positions arbitrarily. Finally, Christine tricks her mother into placing the girls in the same household, Christine as cook and dressmaker and Lea as maid.

Life with Madame Danzard and her daughter, Isabelle, is at first pleasant enough. Madame appreciates what a bargain she's getting--Christine is clever and Lea is meek, and they both work cheap. But the years wear on, and Madame becomes harder and harder to please and more suspicious. Isabelle is at first kind to the maids and (mildly) rebellious toward her mother, but at last cold-hearted to her servants and a collaborator in their torments. The rich women have complete power over the poor--and, as we all know, power corrupts.

Kesselman sets up continual contrasts between the sloth of the upper-class women and the industry of the workers. The girls in the kitchen mature into womanhood while the women in the parlor degenerate into selfish monsters. The maids build their own little world, isolated and perverse but warmed by their love. Madame, meanwhile, controls and manipulates Isabelle, holding out to her the hope of marriage but in truth repressing and managing her every movement, down to her choice of clothes.

The real villain in Kesselman's tale is the socioeconomic system that gives so much power to one class and removes all self-determination from another. The maids are kept in their misery through simple intimidation, but also through ignorance and poverty. All that stands between them and the street is the good graces of their employers, and what little grace Madame and Isabelle may have had ekes away before our eyes.

Corruption degenerates into cruelty, indolence into boredom, and boredom into pettiness. It's a lethal combination. And though it's not hard to see where this story, based on a real-life case, is going to end, the end still comes as a terrible shock.

Kesselman has woven a masterful story, but she's left loose threads. While Lea and Christine are fully realized characters, Madame is more caricature than character and Isabelle is barely even a caricature. Evil can be stupid and banal, but people are complicated, and their motives--however trite their actions--complex.

Still, Karen Erickson as Madame Danzard and Gina Wencel as Isabelle deserve praise for what they make of human evil. Erickson gets everything right, from the slightly bent female posture of period magazines to the flashing eyes of the petty dictator. Her Madame spews poison in ferocious and calculated rhythms. Gina Wencel gives Isabelle just the right touch of moral idiocy, giggling stupidly with embarrassment and then hardening into malicious meanness just like her mother.

Rebekah Buric as Lea and Jean Sorich as Christine are perfectly matched and feed off each other in the best tradition of actorly symbiosis. You can't begin to imagine anyone else in either role. Buric plays innocence and desire with equal honesty and power, making Lea's youth and vulnerability gradually evolve into terrified insecurity and animal sexuality. Sorich burns up the stage with rage and passion that has been repressed only through sheer will. If Buric is the beating heart of the production, Sorich is its brain.

Technically, the CityStage production puts you in the mood. The lighting by Rachel Mackenzie and set design by S.B. Neilson lavishly underscore the claustrophobic atmosphere, a fine soundtrack by Brenda Matson lends eery verity to every scene, and the costumes by Annissa Hoffmeyer are perfect.

The acting, directing and production values combine to create another world and the neurosis of the individuals trapped inside it. The play's moral power lies in its revelation of injustice. And the light it shines on that dark history is dim indeed.

 
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