In 1968 it wasn't easy for women to state their case, especially in French Canada, where the Catholic Church ruled, the radio novenas at 7 p.m. each evening were a call to the faithful to make their womanly vows, and there was little relief from the kitchen-sink drudgery of most lives. For the vulgarity of its working-class idiom, Michel Tremblay's play became a cause celèbre in Canada—because it portrayed working-class women and because it showed a healthy disdain for their men. All those elements are still vibrant in Christine Devereux's staging of Les Belles Soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law), even if the shock value no longer registers.
Germaine (Darcy Shean), after winning 1 million trading stamps, recruits her female relatives and neighbors to help stick the stamps into booklets. While they're busy sticking (as well as pocketing the stamp books), we get a scarily ugly glimpse into the resentment and frustration of 15 dismal lives; the letting-down of this group's collective hair is not a pretty sight. The women take their turns under the metaphorical hair dryer and, fueled by the envy a million redeemable stamps provokes, recount their miserable life stories. The front of friendship and sisterhood breaks down into jealous, mean-spirited, personal attacks that reveal the slime beneath the pious hypocrisy instilled by the church and an emotionally impoverished society.
Germaine and her daughter, Linda (Marin May), are generational knives in each other's gut. Rose (Carolyn Wilson), the crudely outspoken sister of the lottery winner, is pregnant again from a husband who demands his rights morning and night, an exhausting 365 days a year. Des-Neiges Verrette (Taylor Ashbrook), still virginal, dreams of being raped by a brush salesman she thinks she loves. Therese (Stephanie Wiand), renowned for her sweet charity, regularly punches out her senile mother-in-law, Olivine (Ivy Jones), as a means of control. Angeline (Barbara Murray), an aging spinster, shocks her longtime companion, Rheauna (Denise Lowe), when she reveals her palship with Pierrette (Amy Benedict), the girl-gone-bad who (shh!) works in a bar.
The playwright has piled his 15 women onto a bed of very painful nails, seeming compelled to give every story its mournful depth, running to caricature in some cases, albeit with several stand-out choral moments. When latecomer Lise (Trish Geiger) gets her moment in the spotlight, she has to sort out her major social problem upstage of a very crowded playing area. All the performances are committed and excellent, if a bit brash and exaggerated, perhaps by directorial choice, perhaps by the script's shortcomings.
The play's message has fortunately aged itself out of urgency in the 30-plus years since its premiere, but the energy of this production still amuses as a piece of often hilarious herstory.
"Les Belles Soeurs," presented by Darcy Shean, Carolyn Wilson, and the Eclectic Company Theatre at the Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., N. Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Sept. 21-Nov. 16. $15-18. (818) 508-3003.