MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE
Footsteps Theatre Company
CONVERSATIONS OF MY MOTHERS
Theatre du Jour
at Heartland Studio Theatre
“It was not a murder,” Janet Flanner remarks dryly in her book Paris Was Yesterday, “but a revolution. . . . The rebels won with horrible handiness.” In February of 1933, in the provincial town of Le Mans, the hideously mutilated bodies of a society matron and her daughter were discovered in their home. The two female servants, who were sisters, freely confessed to the murders but could give no reason for them, saying only something about a defective iron and a scorched blouse. Investigation revealed that their employer had been a strict mistress and that the sisters had a lesbian relationship, but by that point they’d both lapsed into silence and a sort of ecstatic trance (possibly learned in the convent where they were raised). The jury sentenced the younger sister to ten years at hard labor and the elder to death–though that sentence was never carried out because the death penalty for women had been abolished in Le Mans by then.
Rather than taking Jean Genet’s ritualistic approach to this real-life story (in The Maids), Wendy Kesselman in My Sister in This House concentrates on the psychological dynamics among these four bored and isolated women: the older sister, Christine Lutton, an obsessively competent young woman determined to escape her parasitic mother, the prisonlike convent, and domestic servitude; Lea, her younger sister, a shy, childlike creature who grows increasingly dependent on Christine; Isabelle Danzard, the spoiled and bored young lady of the house; and the formidable Madame Danzard, whose own boredom and bitterness over her daughter’s unmarried status take the form of a draconian control over her environment. Though this situation at first seems benign enough (“Madame knows her place,” Christine says approvingly. “She never comes into the kitchen to interfere with our work”), it soon becomes apparent that long hours passed with no amusement save one another breeds unhealthy curiosity, paranoid jealousy, and petty power games. Bit by bit the frustrations build until it becomes altogether logical for a trivial household accident to trigger a grisly bloodbath.
This lurid tale could easily spill into camp melodrama of the most excessive kind, but director Dale Heinen continues the Footsteps Theatre’s record for intelligent but moving work, keeping things restrained to an almost excruciating degree, forcing us to focus on each detail as meticulously as the characters do and to be drawn into the tension, the better to understand the final shocking but inevitable eruption. In the catalytic role of Madame Danzard, Ann Wakefield eschews Mommie Dearest cliches to deliver a symphonic cycle of a performance, starting out almost likable (at one point, thinking she’s alone, she dances giddily to radio music, only to stop shamefaced at her daughter’s entrance) but gradually allowing her high, delicate voice to grow shrill and her instruction to become more and more demented and dictatorial. Susannah Kavanaugh’s Isabelle likewise evolves, from a passive victim of maternal abuse to a martinet as manipulative as her parent, cheating at cards in retaliation for her mother’s practice of playing for both of them. Mickie Paskal as Christine and Carri Levinson as Lea convey perfectly the interdependence that develops between abused children, winning our sympathy not through cloying pitiability but through an understated pride and a yearning for freedom and independence. Joe Jensen’s scenography, Dawn DeWitt’s costumes, and Dorothy Hickman’s sound design evoke the period and environment with museum-precise accuracy.
Appropriately enough the first letter in the names of the five generations of mothers who make up the roster in Mim Fields’s Conversations of My Mothers is “M.” They are Mave, who emigrates to America from Sweden after an indiscretion involving a political rebel; Maddie, the daughter born onboard ship who eventually works in the sweatshops of New York and weds a union organizer; Mae, a farm wife with two children and a husband in the Army in the 40s; Marion, who lives the suburban life of the 50s and early 60s; and Mem, who finally puzzles over the many options open to American women in the 80s.
Not much dramatic or unexpected happens in the course of the play–most of the “conversations” involve courtship, marriage, and procreation, though passing reference is made to the Depression, Rosie the Riveter, Kennedy’s assassination, and the liberating effects of education. (Marion’s new assertiveness after only a few adult-ed classes is a joy to behold, but Mem’s university education seems to have landed her nothing but a husband who loves doing housework.) The tone of both script and production is at times naive, but Theatre du Jour bills its production as a “celebration,” not an explication, and director Denise Meehan has assembled a cast with enough warmth and humor to make passing the time with them a pleasure. Mother’s Day is coming up, and Conversations of My Mothers offers the perfect occasion for daughters to cry and mothers to chuckle nostalgically.