My Sister in This House, TinFish Theatre. In 1933, while serving as maids in a Le Mans town house, two sisters named Papin butchered their mistress and her daughter, gouging out their eyes while they were still alive–a crime that would inspire Genet’s The Maids, the film The Ceremony, and Wendy Kesselman’s taut 90-minute play. While hinting that class envy or incest might have been triggers, Kesselman concentrates on how the ignorance and isolation of both pairs of women fed their paranoia and rage, culminating in a kind of contagious hysteria.

Alison Birkmeyer Aske’s period staging reinforces the misunderstandings and resentments that make the killings seem inevitable. These gentry and servants are very much creatures of their time, morbidly curious about one another but too timid or inhibited to discover the truths that might have averted the murders. Cold, smug, and cheap, the control freak Madame Danzard (Kate Harris) is as much a tyrant to her submissive daughter (Kourtney Vahle) as to the sisters she tragically underestimates. The yearning younger Papin sister (Martti Nelson) moves from a convent girl’s aching naivete to a splenetic fury. The older sister is a coiled spring, and Mary Jo Boldue, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Joan Crawford, says more with her eyes and body language than with Kesselman’s terse and ironic small talk. The murders are never adequately explained, but then that flaw has dogged every treatment of this story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Alison Aske.