Ursula K. Bowden’s eerie set greets us as we enter the Crane Theater for the wickedly entertaining “My Sister in This House,” its two levels immediately establishing that the play’s four characters may dwell in the same house but they live in two separate worlds.
Imperious Madame Danzard (Katherine Kupiecki) and petulant daughter Isabelle (Nicole Goeden) laze around a drawing room, gossiping or playing cards. Their servants, sisters Christine (Kayla Dvorak Feld) and Léa (Nissa Nordland Morgan) occupy the kitchen and a cramped bedroom upstairs. The two pairs are cloistered from each other, which helps to explain how their relations deteriorate to the extent that they barely speak by the end of the play, when Christine and Léa kill their employers. (That’s not a spoiler or, if it is, it’s already spoiled by the program and by the fact that this true story from 1933 France has been adapted into dozens of novels, movies and plays, including “The Maids,” produced last year by Dark & Stormy Productions.)
For that matter, you could argue that Samantha Kuhn Staneart’s costumes are spoilers since the Danzards spend the entire play in cartoonishly over-adorned, brightly colored dresses that could be dubbed Clown Not-So-Chic (and I don’t think it was my imagination that Isabelle’s rouged cheeks get redder and redder as the play progresses). The sistermaids, meanwhile, sport Gothic black-and-white uniforms that make it look like they just slunk out of a Tim Burton movie. The sense is that “My Sister in This House” wants us to know how the story will end, keeping us focused on the mounting intensity of a power dynamic that leads to murder.
Not just the power that employers lord over employees, but also the power between sisters. Younger sister Léa begins the play a naif, following the lead of her more experienced sibling. But there’s a shift somewhere along the way and it is Léa who is helping angry, overwrought Christine get through the day. Almost like partnered dancers, Feld and Morgan create a sense of the sisters as a single entity, a roiling bundle of hostility that will eventually explode. Like Leopold and Loeb, who committed their crimes less than a decade before the sisters on whom the play is based, the two might not have done anything wrong on their own. But combined, they’re deadly.
It’s a play about gradually shifting moods and director Carin Bratlie Wethern has done a dandy job of ratcheting up the tension, cinematically shifting between the two sets of characters and using simple effects — a slowly dripping faucet, creepy music, the claustrophobia of the steep staircase where events reach a boil — to heighten the sense of drear and dread.
Honestly, the one thing I didn’t like about “My Sister in This House” was that clunky title. But its awkwardness stuck in my head, making me wonder why playwright Wendy Kesselman selected it. And it left me with this: It could be argued that all four characters are in a sisterhood of sorts, one that’s constrained by the male-dominated time in which they lived. If only they had acknowledged that sisterhood, perhaps none of these tragic events would have happened.