Human relationships are so finely balanced that it’s a wonder any two people ever get along. Wendy Kesselman’s My Sister In This House explores an extreme example of domestic imbalance. It’s getting a meticulous though problematical production by Providence College Theatre (through February 26).
The playwright was fascinated by accounts of a 1930s incident in France. Two sisters served as maids in a household where simmering resentments rose to the boiling point and beyond. This is prime theatrical meat for actors and directors, who love to feast on opportunities to convey internal struggles that reveal themselves beneath words and within silences. You know how Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman can convey whole speeches in exchanges with their eyes? That sort of opportunity.
Four characters are stewing in a doily-decorated pressure cooker in Le Mans, although on the surface everything looks placid.
Christine (Caitlin Elizabeth Doyle) is six years older than her sister Lea (Jill Palmer). As the play starts, Christine has arranged employment for Lea in the household where she is working, to train the nervous 15-year-old. The two are intensely devoted to each other — or morbidly co-dependent, as we like to assume these days.
They are convent-trained and provincial, with neuroses that are so much a part of their place and time that they seem inevitable. Lea visits their mother each Sunday and hands over her week’s pay just because it is expected. Christine has long ago broken off with their greedy parent, who dragged them out of the protective convent that they loved to put each to work. Her repressed anger can flare out in unexpected ways, such as brushing her sister’s hair so brutally she makes her cry.
Their employers, Madame Danzard (Katie Hughes) and daughter Isabelle (Lisa D’Alessandro), are perfectly satisfied with them as we start out. The mother adores Christine’s cooking, she declares to her daughter with some enthusiasm, saying she trusts them completely.
That this cannot work in the long run is foreshadowed subtly. When Isabelle drops the seed pearls she is sewing onto a purse, her mother stops her from picking them up herself; she rings to summon Lea, and merely glancing to the floor sends her servant onto her hands and knees. This echoes chillingly in act two, years later, when we learn that months can go by without Madame needing to speak to the sisters. At that point, when Isabelle is angry at the maid she and her mother refer to only as “the younger one,” we are not surprised to see her throw some scrap onto the floor and silently hurl Lea down after it.
In such a slow-paced closet drama, atmosphere guides our responses as much as the actors do. Our first impression is established by Dan Bilodeau’s scenic design, a largely sky-blue set that gives a dreamy impression, with an abruptly tilted bed in a far corner making clear that this dream is a disquieting one. David Costa-Cabral’s costumes are important for contrast with the stark black-and-white maid uniforms, so the dresses of Madame and her daughter are numerous, varied, and middle-class elegant. Lighting design by Katherine Abernathy focuses our attention when necessary. Occasionally the sound design by Chris Warren gives us notice we wouldn’t otherwise have: an amplified faucet drip late in act one serves as a drumbeat march to doom.