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Stage Reviews : They Don't Lay Their Cards On Table

November 14, 1986|CHALON SMITH

"The Octette Bridge Club" at the Newport Theatre Arts Center is a gentle, well-acted production of P.J. Barry's seriocomic play about communication among loved ones--the superficial small talk that passes the time, and the big talk--personal, revelatory, even painful--that should be said but often isn't.

The play, set in 1934, is composed almost entirely of chitchat: When eight Rhode Island sisters meet each week for bridge, the conversation rarely veers from the easy and the obvious. They gossip about neighborhood oddballs, joke about their own peculiarities (there are many) and talk earnestly but unquestioningly about religion. The sisters, products of strict Eastern Seaboard puritanism, keep their troubles and insecurities to themselves.

But beneath all this seemingly relaxed chatter lies pain. As her older sisters continue to guard their secrets (their town seems to have a surplus of philandering husbands), Betsy, the youngest, finds it increasingly difficult to keep her troubles to herself. Always sensitive and idiosyncratic, Betsy finds she is slipping into psychosis, although Barry never makes clear just why she is vulnerable. Her sisters ignore or laugh off her pleas for help, seeing them as merely self-indulgent.

Barry's message is planted between the lines: If you can't turn to your sisters, whom can you turn to? Betsy is forced to check into a mental hospital for a five-month "rehabilitation." After she is released, the club games begin anew, and her sisters act as if she had been away for a weekend at the seashore. Betsy, however, refuses to be ignored this time and forces a confrontation.

It sounds like heavy stuff, and it is. But "Octette" softens its blows with homespun humor; the sisters' curious personalities and the teasing, often silly way they mix with one another keep everything buoyant until the crucial moments of drama. Director Joan McGillis works a lively but reflective pace, keeping a balance between the laughs and the play's more serious overtones.

As Betsy, Marcie Ross offers a nicely scaled performance that reveals the character's strength, even in the face of her eroding sanity. It's a difficult role, requiring the actress to show humor mixed with pathos, and Ross carries it off well.

The rest of the cast--Corinne Williams, Jaye Wilson, Beverly Vanasek, Nancy Geerlings, Shirley Price, Myrna Ryan and Jill Bredesen as the sisters, and Bill Cole in a cameo role as a photographer--present simple and effective portrayals. Williams, who plays Martha, the domineering eldest sister, is especially good. She softens the character's pushiness by giving her a slightly abstracted air--it's as if she is oblivious to the damage caused by her scolding outbursts. The shading renders Martha likable despite all the clucking.

"The Octette Bridge Club" runs through Nov. 29 at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. For information, call (714) 631-0288.

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