Part psychological-thriller, part Chekhovian-class-commentary, Theatre Pro Rata’s My Sister in this House is a bone-chilling and hair-raising evening that is distinctly theatrical. Playwright Wendy Kesselman adapts the true story of a famous murder committed in Le Mans, France in the early 1930s in her character-driven all-female script. Director Carin Bratlie Wethern brings a layer of fantastic realism to the eerie events in Pro Rata’s production placing the onus on the audience to determine what is truth and what is dramatic license as events unfold and psyches unhinge.
Reminiscent of Jean Genet’s The Maids, Kesselman’s play centers on the Lutton sisters working as live-in servants at the high class Danzard home. Production advertisements and program notes warn that this is a tale that ends in murder but knowing this tragic end only scratches the surface of the mysterious murderesses. While audiences sit in anticipation, they are held in the fascinating suspense of knowing what happens, but not knowing why. As is true in most murder mysteries, the facts of the case are not necessarily the most compelling, but rather what motive drove a suspect – or pair of suspects in this case – to such a violent end.
The killers in question are Christine and Lea Lutton (Kayla Dvorak Feld and Nissa Nordland Morgan), living in the home of Madame Danzard (Katherine Kupiecki) and her daughter Isabelle (Nicole Goeden). The Danzards are the epitome of wealth and class in a society built on status. They contrast directly in energy, appearance, and tone with their live-in maids. Throughout the production we see both pairs of women engaged in physical tasks that place them firmly in their societal class: the Danzards do needlepoint while the Luttons prepare dinner, the Danzards play cards while the Luttons wash dishes. Strife brews as years pass. Director Carin Bratlie Wethern allows tension to build through a combination of pantomimed movement and household tasks rooted in realism which create a nightmarish experience for the audience.
The all-female cast of four is striking. Kayla Dvorak Feld is a tenderly terrifying Christine Lutton, the older of the two sisters, and Nissa Norland Morgan contrasts Feld’s somber and resolute creepiness with childish naïveté. These performances shine out of equally eerie costumes by Samantha Kuhn Staneart. The Lutton sisters wear clean black and white maids’ uniforms and appear gaunt with dark circles under their eyes and contoured faces. To contrast, The Danzard women profess their wealth in clothing with brightly colored, glossy, and tulle-trimmed dresses. Katherine Kupiecki and Nicole Goeden embody the blind privilege of the upper-crust without becoming villains themselves.
Beyond the chilling story and the unsettling characters, what truly struck me about this production was the interplay of the technical design elements. Ursula K. Bowden’s set combined with Jenny Moeller’s prop design has the audience in suspense (quite literally) from before the curtain speech. Fragments of glass and various household items hang in the air above the rooms of the house, reaffirming the broken societal hierarchy. Emmet Kowler’s diegetic lighting defines each room of the Danzard mansion from the formal dining room featuring an elegant chandelier, to the servants’ quarters with a bare bulb dangling above the shared bed. Jacob M. Davis cleverly uses amplified sound throughout the play to highlight the continuous and monotonous work of the maids - snapping peas (finger snaps from the actors into hidden microphones while preparing imaginary vegetables), kneading bread, and clinking pots and pans, all of which crescendos into the final moment of violence.
My Sister in this House brings the tense excitement of the thriller film genre to stage in a brilliantly theatrical way. I appreciate the distinctly live nature of this production – it relies on the combined efforts of its script, designers, and actors to show us, not tell us, the story of the famous Le Mans murders. We see thoughts as they form in the minds of the actors; we hear the snaps and cracks of relationships crumbling, and all the while we have the distinct sense of foreboding one can only get from knowing a story’s end before its beginning. If you’re looking for an evening of intrigue and suspense, look no further than Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater running through June 16th.