T’is the season for the macabre. At theatres throughout the metroplex, a bizarre witch’s brew of overblown, melodramatic slasher tales with sloshing buckets of stage blood compete for audiences with camped up singing trans-gendered dancing maniacs sporting layers of black eye-liner and fishnet stockings. Gleeful ghouls and goblins will emerge by the hundreds to celebrate the season as Halloween creeps into view. Over at the Bath House Cultural Center, spooky at night any time of the year, WingSpan Theatre Company offers a blood-curdling, scary tale; stone cold sober, based on real events, without a whiff of camp or melodrama. Don’t bring the kiddies….
My Sister In This House, by Wendy Kesselman, portrays the circumstances in an upper class French home in 1933 that led to the mysterious, savage, grisly murder of the homeowner’s wife and her grown daughter by two live-in maids, the Papin sisters, with unclear motive and shady past. (And possibly an “unnatural” affection for each other.) The dead women’s eyes had been gouged out, faces beaten unrecognizable. The sisters used a kitchen knife, a hammer and a pewter pot that had stood at the top of the stairs. Treated at the time as a celebrity murder on O.J. Simpson scale, some viewed it as a symbol of class struggle. Books, multiple films and stage plays emerged, even opera, inspired by the actions and fates of the sad, mad sisters. Jean Genet’s The Maids, play later adapted to a film directed by Christopher Miles, gained notoriety for its portrayal of sadomasochism and power play ritual.
Distinguished American playwright Wendy Kesselman won the national Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 1981, for the version WingSpan performs, My Sister In This House. Making excellent use of the shadow-filled nooks and crannies at the unique Bath House Cultural Center performance space to bring this taut-wound, no nonsense play to life, WingSpan’s production treads a fine line between realism and the grotesque with superlative, understated assurance. The audience feels an invisible cord tightening around its collective neck as the sisters go progressively berserk with desperation and enmeshment.
Played with complete honesty, intimate detail and mutual trust by Whitney Wilson and Catherine Dubord, the Papins transform effectively from neat-as-a-pin, compliant servant girls to disheveled, cold-blooded murderers while the effete, foolish homeowner’s wife and daughter are too self-absorbed to notice or to see what’s in store for them approaching.
Upstairs/Downstairs fashion, scenes play in counterpoint with only occasional interaction between the two pairs of women. Yet tension mounts like a vise clamping down. Susan Sargeant (Madame) and Stephanie Stuart (daughter Isabelle) inhabit a selfish, narrow-scoped bourgeois world, creating a well-defined mother-daughter relationship whether trying on hats or playing cards or bickering. Madame exhibits a cruel need to dominate. Isabelle reacts with passive-aggressive ennui. They treat the maids dismissively, callously, yet in keeping with the cultural norms of the era. Did they drive the sisters to murder, or was it something else? The play leaves the audience wondering, wondering….
Award-winning international director and UNT drama professor Marjorie Hayes guides this production with a firm vision and the wisdom to follow the play’s arc as written but not to wrap it up too neatly at the end. Nobody knows for sure, for real, what happened that evening to cause the Papin sisters to snap and commit murder. Respecting the art of this finely crafted, haunting work involves letting the candle flicker at the finish without quite snuffing it out.
A stuffy, cluttered bourgeois set with a pretentious stairway to nowhere, somber, morose lighting and perfectly pitched sound with excellent inclusion of song and radio snippets help make this odd and disturbing play a worthy, intriguing experience. The sisters’ final moments of disintegration at the end reveal Dubord and Wilson’s depth and courage as performers as they brush hard against madness and evil and strike a universal chord of sorrow.
My Sister In This House runs without intermission through October 24th, presented by WingSpan Theatre Company in cooperation with the Bath House Cultural Center.
Tickets: 214-675-6573 www.wingspantheatre.com