SAN DIEGO — Crimes of passion, performed in heat, linger chillingly in the memory. They serve as unwelcome reminders that under the right conditions, someone as familiar as your smiling neighbor or the girl down the street might be capable of murder.
Ninety-five years after the fact, the story of Lizzie Borden, the woman accused (but never convicted) of killing her father and stepmother, continues to fascinate. Early this year, Sharon Pollock's "Blood Relations" at the North Coast Repertory Theatre tried to provide a social framework in which Borden's supposed slayings might make sense.
Similarly, Wendy Kesselman's "My Sister in This House," playing at the Marquis Gallery Theatre through Oct. 25, tackles the case of the Papin sisters, two maids convicted of the apparently motiveless 1933 murders of their mistress and her daughter in Le Mans, France.
Kesselman's drama touches on much the same theme as Pollock's--that of violence as the last desperate lashing out of powerless victims. But where Pollock's story hinged on female disenfranchisement in a male-dominated world, the culprits in Kesselman's four-woman cast are twofold. On the surface is the issue of class warfare between the relentless mistress and the frightened maids. Just below, irritating the surface, making it vulnerable for eruption, are the more subtle battles of control between mothers, daughters and sisters.
Under the direction of Kelly Rae Hero, the Marquis production captures the class warfare but muddles the connections between the mistress and her daughter, the daughter and the maids and the maids and their never-seen, but very much present, mother.
The ultimate effect is that, instead of moving with a sense of inevitability to the dreaded conclusion, the play leaves its audience scratching their heads, wondering why the maids are suddenly overreacting.
It's a sad waste of a handsomely designed production and two fine performances by Dana Hooley as the older sister, Christine, and Ann Richardson as Madame Danzard, the mistress with whom Christine squares off.
Hooley's maid is a taut, vibrating string with one all-consuming love in her small dark world--her younger sister, Lea. Brought up as a poor girl in a convent, Christine has learned to deny her desires, which only makes them build in intensity. She hates her mother who takes her away from the nuns so that she and Lea can work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. as maids, and then appropriates almost all their hard-earned money. In an eerie prefiguring of what is to come, Christine and Lea symbolically kill their mother by tearing the blanket she sewed for Lea when the younger girl was just a baby.
Unfortunately, the elements that should make this scene frightening are just not there, partly because Savvy Scopelleti's too-sweet Lea seems utterly out of touch with the savage undercurrents of her actions.
In contrast, Richardson's exquisitely civilized Madame Danzard is as heartless and brutally controlling as one could imagine the girls' mother (in a far cruder way) to have been. Madame Danzard's manipulation of her own daughter, Isabelle, adds to the tension as the repressed Isabelle defiantly courts Lea's attentions which, in turn, inflames the hot jealousies of both Christine and the Madame.
At least these dynamics should add to the tension. Unfortunately, like Scopelleti, Shana Wride's Isabelle only plays the white notes in her character. While Wride displays some deft comic turns as Isabelle, that same humor deflects the repressed anger that should be turning up the heat in this seething pressure cooker.
The wonderfully detailed set by Jay Lopp strikes just the right claustrophobic note. Not only does Lopp succeed in creating four distinct living spaces in the cramped Gallery space, he successfully conveys both the contrasts and parallels in the lives of the "couples"--the photo of Madame and Isabelle in the generously furnished dining room, the photo of Christine and Lea in the narrow, stark bedroom of the maids.
John-Bryan Davis' colorful assortment of period costumes makes one appreciate the frequent changing of scenes as an opportunity for new hats, feathers, bustles and bows. Ellery Brown does an effective job with the lighting, as does director Hero in matching some haunting music with the action.
If only Hero had done as good a job in bringing out the music inherent in the production, she would have quite a powerful show.
"MY SISTER IN THIS HOUSE"
By Wendy Kesselman. Director is Kelly Rae Hero. Set by Jay Lopp. Lighting by Ellery Brown. Costumes by John-Bryan Davis. With Dana Hooley, Savvy Scopelleti, Ann Richardson and Shana Wride. Off-stage voices by Brian Short, Ron Choularton and I. Michael Dominguez. At 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Oct. 25. At the Marquis Gallery Theatre, 3711-A India St., San Diego.