Les Belles Soeurs

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

by Michel Tremblay
Directed by Eva Blahut
Played by Shirley Barr, Anne Busby, Meaghan Chenosky, Ellen Denny, Robin Rundle Drake, Penny Eizenga, Charlotte Hegele, Deborah Mitchell, Virginia Pratten, Kathy Quayle, Lesley Quesnelle, Vanessa Quesnelle, Julia Webb, Lucy Williams and Linda Worsley
A Passionfool Theatre Company Production
The Arts Project Theater
April 18-26, 2008

Quebec in the 1960s was a time when the province dramatically threw off the repressively conservative shackles of Premier Maurice Duplessis’ rule to become a modern society. This play is a powerful microcosm of the conflicts of that change through the eyes of several women who can only see the tumult from their point of view.

Germaine Lauzon has hit the big time winning the grand price of a department store’s contest, one million stamps that could be redeemed for any item the store carries. However, since the stamps have to be fixed onto the ballot books to be effective, Lauzon calls on most of her family and neighbours to help prepare the winnings, which also gives her a captive audience to crow her good fortune. While they all come, each of the women has their own concerns and their point of view that includes a growing jealousy at Germaine’s smugness. While Pierrette, Germaine’s black sheep sister, comes to mix the occasion up, the inner feelings of each woman at the event are given their own forum. Admid these confessions, events escalate to a traumatic conclusion that shows Germaine the bitter truth about the worth of her friends and the sister she rejected.

This play gave a profound insight into the social conflict of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution where the woman who grew up poisoned by “The Great Darkness” of Duplessis’ administration run headlong into a younger generation’s point of view. The play has a deft balance with the realistic and the surreal with each woman coming to the forefront for a private soliloquy whether it is Marie-Ang’s bitter jealousy, Rheauna’s competitive martyrdom or Lisette’s isolated snobbery. Each are allowed their own forum to express their point of view that is carefully hidden in the social setting while their anxieties and dark sides threaten to explode into the story proper.

This story format allows an impressive sophistication to show a compelling complexity of the characters, even while the narrative still indicts the restricted public morality and hypocrisy that a new Quebec was about to tear down. I definitely see how this play made such a stir in its debut with its irreverent on those social virtues that dominated Quebec for so long. In fact, parts of it were even more prescient now as when Rose puts down pregnant teenagers while proudly declaring her Catholic faith. That aside comes off as even more disgusting now considering we now know that the Roman Catholic church was shamelessly sheltering of its child molesting personnel with an unrepentant determination at that time. The self-righteous social rejection of Ms. Sauve for the “mortal sin” of going to a nightclub makes the point even more obvious with the rest of the women becoming a twisted choir singing the same repellent note of condemnation. Yet, the play refuses to be simplistic even as its base sympathies are shown to be be with Pierrette, who privately confesses that her own life has a deep pain of its own from a personal choice that her family warned her about. In short, Michel Tremblay did not write a play about a simple clash of generations or about villains and victims, but about real people going through a societal change that would redefine their world.

A good play depends on good players, and this production has pulled many of the best female actors in the city to bring this Canadian masterpiece to life. Ellen Denny is an excellent anchor as Germaine, a matron with a well studied sense of ego that knows just how to manipulate the social mores of her world with a barely restrained arrogance. That makes the final betrayal at the end all the more effective as she learns that her luck has run out in the most traumatic fashion. Charlotte Hegele plays off her well as Germaine’s rebellious daughter, Linda, who can barely tolerate her mother’s petty chicanery even as she struggle with her own desires. Likewise, Vanessa Quesnelle is a marvel as the main counterpoint character, Pierrette, a sophisticated embodiment of a new Quebec who also hides a profound disillusionment of that new world she can’t dare admit to her family. Yet, for that pain, Quesenelle creates a compelling character who has a wisdom the other are missing as they struggle against a new emerging reality they don’t understand. While there are too many players to comment on in this review, each have a spotlight moment that makes this play a powerful piece of drama. Even when the occasion erupts into chaos, the cast perform their roles in the societal with the grace and precision of ballet dancers, albeit ones who are non-stop chatterboxes.

The stagecraft has its own special ambience via inspired craftsmanship. It is easily the most elaborate one I have ever seen on the Arts Project Theatre with a convincing recreation of a 1960s working class home’s kitchen. Made with all the period accouterments of such a home, complete with passageway facades, the end result is an enthralling world of domesticity that becomes a deceptive battleground of the women’s petty emotional power games and petty rivalries. When that particular strife climaxes at the end, it has a desolate nature that matches the harsh lessons that Germaine learns to her sorrow and from which her daughter and Pierrette can only escape.

Quebec during its quiet revolution was a time where the shackles of a repressive time were thrown off with a defiant finality. This play illustrates that time for me as no other has as I see women who find themselves facing that change and cannot see it coming.