Emma Nissenbaum as Claire and Kelly McMurray as Solange in ‘The Maids’ by Jean Genet at the Sherman Playhouse.

Emma Nissenbaum as Claire and Kelly McMurray as Solange in ‘The Maids’ by Jean Genet at the Sherman Playhouse.

Predating “The Help” and “The Butler” is “The Maids” by Jean Genet. This play, which made its premier in 1947, is now in production at the Sherman Playhouse. It definitely highlights the division between the upper and lower classes. 

However, this stunning work is a psychodrama focusing on two very discontented sisters who were employed by an extravagantly wealthy woman. Tired of being humiliated and insulted on a daily basis, these two sisters have endured enough to cross over into madness. It is suggested that the older sister Solange has had affairs and abortions in all likelihood to protect her job and watch over her sister. Claire, the younger sister, is more subdued, but every bit as mad as her sister.

Solange and Claire play a daring game of mocking their employer, called Madame whenever she is out of the house. Knowing their mistress’s schedule by heart, they play at  her dressing table, putting rouge and powder on their faces or wearing her gowns and furs. They are sure to check the clock frequently and they listen and look for any sign of her unexpected return. As they continue the dominance and submission game by spitting on the mistress’s shoes for a shine and other daily tasks, they enter deeper and deeper into madness. They often switch roles by playing each other, emphasizing a sense of otherness that extends beyond the game and their lowly positions into their psyche. Then they start planning to murder their mistress. They will put poison in her tea.

So well does Robin Frome direct this play that the audience worries for the maids. The audience is fearful that they will be caught and listens and looks just as intently as the maids for any sign of her arrival. The director has also designed the set by using flats as pages of a letter that Claire apparently wrote about Madame’s partner. The letter was strong enough to put her partner in jail and causes much distress for their mistress.

This is a three-member cast with exceptional performances. Kelly McMurray as Solange is so dark and threatening that all of Solange’s hatred becomes as strong as a character in itself. Her performance powerfully captures the resentment of all who are demeaned. Emma Nissenbaum can add this production to her outstanding credits, and Katherine Almquist as Madame, who isn’t on stage much, makes such a lasting impression that she physically solidifies the play and the cast and becomes just as memorable as her two maids. Of course, the play itself is so strong that long before Madame appears on stage, the dialogue has described her perfectly.

Lynn Nissenbaum’s costumes make visible all that the playwright wrote. David White’s sound design contributes to the believability of the stage work. When a telephone rings on stage, it actually rings where it is supposed to ring.This is an outstanding production that is rarely produced. It is a perfect play for chilly autumn nights. It plays through Oct. 5. Box office: 860-354-3622.

 

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association, and covers art and culture in a blog for CBS and CBS-CT.  She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]