Les Belles Soeurs (The Beautiful Sisters)
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
May 5, 2005
I am glad to have been introduced to Woman Seeking..., a critically-acclaimed company with a great mission statement, which I will excerpt from here: “To provide an arena free from stereotypes, for productions that explore issues relevant to women... They do not agree that they cannot age, or have to be a size 4 to play the love interest.” Their current show has great production values and a talented, large group of artists—things not to be taken for granted off-off Broadway, especially the former. Unfortunately, the choice of play—a revival of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs—and the decision to transplant this late 1960s French-Canadian play from a working class section of Quebec to a “small New England town” seems to be a misstep in Woman Seeking...’s production history.
Tremblay’s play caused a great stir when it premiered in Quebec in 1968 by bringing to the rather conservative French Canadian stage characters that had not been given a voice there before. Here were working class women frankly discussing marriage, sex, and the Catholic Church and speaking about these issues in joual—the “working class dialect” of French in Quebec—a vernacular that many at the time believed was too low for the stage. Like Eugene O’Neill’s seamen and bar patrons, Tremblay’s characters were familiar and accessible to audiences and by writing this play and writing in joual, Tremblay was validating their drama and their language was worthy of the same stages that had been dominated by Shakespeare and Moliere.
Ostensibly, Les Belles Soeurs is the story of Germaine, a wife and mother who has won a million Gold Stamps in a contest—like those that used to be given out by grocery stores, that can to be pasted into books and traded in for home goods. Germaine invites her two sisters and other friends from her parish to come and help her paste stamps into their booklets so that she may claim a catalog's worth of prizes. Perhaps it is because everyone who arrives is jealous of Germaine’s good fortune (and Germaine further provokes these feelings by being neither humble nor a good hostess), but soon this large gathering of family and neighbors start exchanging jabs and then fighting outright. The pasting soon gives way to stealing what each feels is her proper share of her winnings. In the course of the brawling, there are secrets revealed and an estranged sister returns, but Tremblay seems less concerned about the story at hand than he is about letting these characters speak directly about their troubles—very directly. The present action frequently stops for characters to give soliloquies and there are several choral sequences—with the ensemble speaking simultaneously or in a rapid cacophony of lines—on subjects such as the misery of their weekly routine or their love of the game of bingo.
Tremblay’s original was praised for making lyrical a dialect that many had looked down upon. Unfortunately, the English of this version sounds like a literal translation—it is very matter-of-fact and makes the characters seem overly simple. (A translator is not credited in the program and there have been several English translations, none by Tremblay.)
I also feel that the play—though revelatory in its time—has not aged well. Tremblay’s characterizations are painted with broad strokes and there is little room for subtext or subtlety amongst all the sound and fury. We are now several generations removed from being shocked by any of the ideas presented in the play and as a result what was once groundbreaking social satire is now being played as low comedy. I was amazed at how much of the bile and cruelty these characters showed to each other are served up here as if they were sitcom antics. This is particularly disturbing in the case of one character, Theresa, who has become a caregiver to her wheelchair-bound mother-in-law who seems to be in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Theresa beats her defenseless mother-in-law in front of us, once even knocking her unconscious, the only way she has found to ‘get her to be quiet’. A number of people in the audience laughed at this as if it were a slapstick routine. Perhaps this is because the play no longer has the resonance as satire to shake people’s sensibilities so the audience simply laughs the whole thing off.
The play’s impact has also been hurt by what I suppose you could call “Culture-Blind Casting.” The setting has been moved from Quebec to ‘a small town in New England’ and the transposition doesn’t make the world of the play feel genuine.
Though I did not enjoy the play itself, I do want to say that Woman Seeking... did impress me with the talented, well-cast ensemble and professional production design. Melanie Blythe and Lauren Casgren-Tindall have not only costumed 15 actresses in 1960s period dress (no small feat), they have delivered a design in which we get a visual insight into each character as she arrives. The set by Dan Jacoby and Heidi B. Andersson and wonderful period props also look great and ground the production solidly in its period. Though the play often has 15 people onstage at once, the most striking moments come during the play’s soliloquies—especially in the stark loneliness Stephanie Hepburn conveys in her story of being in love with the salesman who comes only once a month, as well as the grace and complete openness to the audience that Vivian Meisner has as she shares her character’s dilemma of deciding between the virtues she has been taught and her desires. I hope that in their next production, Woman Seeking... sets its excellent company of artists on material that has more to say to us now, rather than putting some much energy behind a play whose time has passed.