In 1936, Clare Booth Luce surprised theatergoers with “The Women,” a snappy — and snapping — play about catty New York socialities and wannabes, performed by an all-female cast. Three decades later, Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay delivered a kind of flip side.
Tremblay’s “Les Belles Soeurs” (“The Sisters-in-Law”), which has been given an intriguing production at Fells Point Corner Theatre, consists solely of female characters.
These Montreal ladies are on a much lower socio-economic level than Luce’s rhymes-with-”itchy” types, but just as prone to gossip, prejudgments and back-stabbing — and likewise capable of being awfully amusing.
“Les Belles Soeurs” was quite a groundbreaker for being written in a working class Quebecois dialect called joual, and for having working-class Catholic women talk openly about the dead-end drudgery of their lives, along with such loaded topics as sex and abortion.
The play has been translated into any number of languages over the years, including Yiddish and a Scottish dialect, so it’s not surprising that someone would eventually give it a Baltimore accent.
For the Fells Point Corner Theatre staging, director Richard Barber and dramaturg Kate Bishop have devised a version of the script that transplants the characters to the theater’s own neighborhood. The ladies’ names have been tweaked to reflect Polish, Irish and Italian roots.
Tremblay’s time setting for the play, 1965, has been pushed back to 1963 — specifically, the day before the Kennedy assassination, a detail meant to reflect how so many things were about to change for the characters trapped in their insular world.
“Les Belles Soeurs” purists may have issues with all of this, but the concept works and certainly respects Tremblay’s vision. This examination of contemporary society and human nature remains at once funny and sad, real and satiric.
The action unfolds in a single day in the home of Germaine Lankowski, who has just won a million trading stamps (remember trading stamps?). To help paste them into redemption books, she invites over a whole mess of friends and relatives — excluding her bad sheep sister Paulette, of course, the one who works in a (shudder) nightclub.
Germaine can’t wait to redecorate her entire home with free merchandise, including the Chinese paintings she has long admired in the catalog, “the ones with the velvet.” And she just can’t help gloating about her stroke of fortune.
That only annoys the others, reinforcing their resentment of the “stupid, rotten life” they contend with day after day, a routine of cooking, cleaning, fighting with kids and husbands, and watching TV. What, the others wonder, did Germaine ever do to deserve all those stamps?
Helenmary Ball gives a sturdy, colorful performance as Germaine and reveals some telling nuance along the way, especially in the play’s dark closing moments. Ann Marie Field does a brassy job as Rose, a pistol of a woman armed with contempt for just about everyone.
Terri A. Laurino shines as the sweet Yvette, making the most of one of the most disarming passages in the play — a long, breathless monologue that is simply a litany of relatives and friends who attended a birthday party. Anne Shoemaker is another charmer as Blanche, who has fallen for a traveling salesman.
As can happen with community theater, the level of acting varies greatly, but there’s enough skill and flair to keep things percolating. And the cast jumps heartily into the play’s most unusual features, including occasional unison outbursts, a la Greek chorus, and a gutsy song in praise of bingo.
Although costumes and hair styles do not consistently give off a 1963 vibe, the set neatly conjures up old Baltimore, right down to the Formstone and painted screens.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times