The Cambrian

Depression-era sisters hope & cope

By Joan Crowder

Special to The Cambrian

“The Octette Bridge Club,” by P.J. Barry, is constructed like a good short story. It introduces the characters quickly and efficiently, beginning on a light and comic note, and in the second act, winds up revealing dark secrets and family frustrations. It is an ideal play for a fine ensemble of women, directed by Judith Jesness.

The setting is Providence, Rhode Island, and the play begins in 1934. Eight sisters, raised in a strict Irish Catholic family, meet twice a month to play bridge. They are introduced to the audience as they introduce themselves to a photojournalist from the Providence Journal who is doing a story about them. Each sister tells him what her husband does and how many children she has, and we get a taste of each woman’s personality as they joke and interact. But after the photographer leaves, their deeper personalities emerge.

Martha, the eldest and a widow, is played well by Nancy Green. Martha takes her position in the family seriously, expecting to be the one who must be obeyed. Betsy is the youngest, frightened by suspicions of her husband’s infidelity. She becomes the centerpiece of the second act. Mary Schwalbe brings her to life as timid and troubled in the first act, and bold and empowered 10 years later.

Each of the other sisters has a distinct persona. The upbeat Lil, played by Cynthia Anthony, orchestrates the playful moments. Connie Shankle is happily married Nora, Sandy Bosworth is unmarried Mary who lives with sister Alice (Barbara Z. Beane). Toddy Shankle is Connie, always quick with a quip, and Janice Peters is Ann, a no-nonsense school teacher with an alcoholic husband.

The friendly photographer is played by John Shankle.

In the second act, the bridge club is celebrating its 13th anniversary at Halloween, all are wearing costumes, and each one performs a short song, poem or dance. Events of the past 10 years unfold, and there are some confrontations. The era of the play is a colorful character itself and provides material for much of the humor. For example, the sisters think that when they appear in the rotogravure (color magazine of the paper), they will be as famous as the Dionne quintuplets (who were a phenomenon before in vitro fertilization). And 10 years later, it is wartime and they are praying for the men overseas.

The morals dictated by the times and by their religion are also an important element. A sister swearing is frowned upon, and the word “intercourse” is shocking. Talking about sex is scandalous, although husbands frequently stray. Women will relate to the characters — especially women of a certain age. There is more humor than pathos in the scenario, with clever dialogue and repartee, but the final moments are touching.

The set by Art Van Rhyn and the costumes by Sara Blair-Field reflect the times, and background music adds nostalgic ambience.

This production initiates a season of theatrical events by Allied Arts, making good use of Cambria’s “old grammar school.”