SEPTEMBER 2022 | Volume 219
Photo by Nancy Caldwell.
United Players’ first production under the company’s new artistic director, Sarah Rodgers, is set in La Grange, North Carolina in 1970. Ray Kennedy’s The Thursday Night Bridge Circle explores three generations of women, Black and white, working through the new realities of desegregation in a small Southern town.
Under Rodgers’ confident direction, the cast of eleven women does excellent work in peopling that world without hitting the familiar clichés too hard. The result is both entertaining and educational for a Canadian audience removed from the specific realities of that time and place. Kennedy’s script ultimately embraces the humanity of its characters but is unsparing in revealing the corrosive effects of a racism grown so habitual it’s almost unconscious.
We’re in the home of Louise (Evangela Kepinski), host of this week’s ladies’ bridge circle. A flutter at trying to get everything ready, she amuses us with descriptions of some of the regulars. (“The porch lights are on but there’s no one at home …It takes her 90 minutes to watch 60 Minutes.”) Louise has little to do but chat since her Black maid, Margaret (Allyson Riley), does all the work. Margaret has been with the family for decades, raising Louise and Louise’s kids. Margaret still calls Louise “baby girl,” and the two women clearly love each other.
We’re introduced to the others as each enters: Louise’s best pals, Cluster (Rebecca deBoer) and Bootsie (Kyla Ferrier); her conservative mother, Mrs. Coltrane (Sheryl Anne McMillan), and liberal mother-in-law, Mrs. Kennedy (Erin Matchette); her very liberal New York Italian Catholic sister-in-law Carmella (Caitlin Clugston), just recently moved to town; Louise’s daughter, home from college, Mary Carter (Ava Stark), and her good friend, Margaret’s daughter Neecie (Sarah Reech), a college student tending bar for the bridge circle; Bootsie’s mother, Miss Caroline (Rhona McCallum Lichtenwald); and old outspoken alcoholic Miss Virginia (very funny Kathryn Shaw).
Things get complicated when it’s revealed that Louise won’t send her boys to the newly desegregated public school, as she said she would, and Miss Virginia uses a shocking racial slur. As the other women scramble to assure Margaret and Neecie that she“means no harm,” Carmella and Mary Carter call out the toxic racism that doesn’t just lie below the civilized surface but is everywhere in a town which, Carmella has noticed, still has segregated facilities and “Whites Only” signs everywhere. All this climaxes in Margaret’s painful, eloquent speech revealing the racism she has endured for decades, even at the hands of her “loving” surrogate daughter, Louise.
In the second act the women digest those revelations as well as new ones from Mary Carter, Neecie and Mrs. Coltrane. By the end, everyone seems to be looking forward to a new era of openness and tolerance. But Kennedy leaves a lot of implicit “we’ll see” markers as they exit. And recent history has shown us how fragile American racial détentes have turned out to be.
United Players once again shows how professional a semi-professional theatre company can be. In addition to the strong acting and tight direction, the show looks and sounds great on Brian Ball’s handsome open living room set, with Sheila White’s subtly delicious costumes, Mark Carter’s unobtrusive lighting and Chris King’s decisive musical punctuation.An auspicious opening to what looks like a rich, potentially exciting fall theatre season.
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