One morning a group of 12 brightly dressed, well-groomed housewives ranging in age from 20 to 80 gathered in their friend Germaine's spacious kitchen for a long day of stamp pasting. They greeted each other warmly, complimented each other profusely, and then said to hell with that, your daughter is a whore, your husband is a creep, and your happy life is a sham. This is the premise of Michael Tremblay's groundbreaking 1960's French-Canadian play Les Belles Soeurs, currently playing at Center Stage Theatre.
Germaine, played with hilariously exaggerated enthusiasm by Sarah Beth Jackson, is the lucky winner of one million stamps that, if pasted properly in one million books, can be redeemed for an entire catalog of cutting-edge household appliances. To hurry along this laborious part of winning the prize, Germaine recruits her girlfriends, sisters, and daughter to help paste. Little does she know her trusted workers are secretly stashing hundreds of stamps in their own pocketbooks as payment for their work.
Les Belles Soeurs focuses less on telling a story than on revealing the dark side of wives and mothers during the early 1960's when they were widely perceived to be meek, nurturing caregivers incapable of understanding, let alone speaking, vulgarity. Tremblay wrote this story to counter those stereotypes and show the world what really happens when 15 working-class women gather behind closed doors to "socialize." Unfortunately, in doing so he took society's view of women from one extreme to another.
Not one of the 15 women cluttering this stage is likable or sympathetic. How can they be when Tremblay has erased every ounce of compassion, sensitivity, and kindness from their personalities?
Some hate their husbands, and all hate their children. But the most hatred is directed toward Germaine's youngest sibling Paulette (Christine Mosere), a beloved spoiled child turned middle-aged stripper. When Paulette shows up to help paste stamps, her once doting sister nearly throws her down the stairs, screaming, "Get out of here, you filthy whore!"
On this note, the guests decide to turn their own hostility up a notch. Snide, catty remarks become full-blown fits of screaming topped off with threats of eternal damnation. To add to the ensuing chaos, two elderly lesbian lovers arrive, one of whom has been having an affair with Paulette. Meanwhile, a young girl admits she needs an abortion, and Germaine's feisty older sister, Diane (Stephanie Hepburn), screams that "unwed mothers are depraved sluts who deserve no sympathy because they chose to get knocked up." All the noise wakes up a wheelchair-bound 92-year-old woman, who is promptly silenced with a blow to her head, courtesy of her daughter-in-law.
By the second act, all semblance of a narrative plot disintegrates as the story relies solely on its shock value to engage the audience. When Les Belles Soeurs enjoyed its initial success, French-Canadian viewers were delighted to see housewives and grannies throwing down the dust rags and clenching their fists. They were also thrilled at the controversial subjects the story defiantly threw into the mix, such as lesbianism, prostitution, premarital sex, and abortion. None of these topics are explored in any depth, but the mere mention of them in public, onstage, once caused quite a stir.
Unfortunately for the current production of this play, times have changed. Teens hear about abortion in school, premarital sex is glorified in mainstream media, lesbianism is used for ratings, mothers can be heard using profanity on long lines at the supermarket, women are no longer expected to give up their lives to cook dinner and raise kids, and the idea of women behaving badly is hardly a radical concept. In order to startle a New York audience in 2005 the way it did a French-Canadian one in the 1960's, this story needs to be updated.
That said, it is important to note that there are still more than a few good jolts left in this once electrifying play. It is always entertaining to hear an 80-year-old grandmother curse like a sailor while two frumpy middle-aged wives call each other filthy whores. The years may have dulled the shock this play once gave its audiences, but the 15 women featured in Les Belles Soeurs prove that you are never too old to catfight, and when socially repressed women scratch, they will draw blood.