Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Independent Players Take the Trick in "Octette Bridge Club"

Eight Irish Catholic sisters and their biweekly ritual are the ingenious premise for "The Octette Bridge Club," by P. J. Barry (1984), performed for a full house on opening night by the Independent Players.

Beautiful depression-era set design and costumes set the tone for a story that transports us to a time when people still relied on traditional gender roles and brittle social norms to find their place in the world. When these sisters gather to play cards, they gently suppress their classic birth order personalities and find moral support in censoring each other.

Cast of "The Octette Bridge Club" (back row, from left) Lori Rohr, Laura Schaefer,
Beth Hitzeroth-McDonald, Nancy Braus, Angela Douglass; (seated, from left)
Marilyn House, Patricia Rataj, B. J. Franquelli; Christopher Lenard.
Each of the actresses in this excellent cast must rely on careful timing to squeeze her lines in edgewise during scenes cluttered with smalltalk, which masks their real-life problems the way corsets and face powder hide their bodily imperfections. Repeated lines like "You're not yourself!" are subtle signals that even the sisters themselves can't decode.

Yet as the play develops, each artist manages to introduce glimpses of individuality through body language and highly nuanced delivery of an opportunistic script. Then a sudden childish regression takes over Betsy (played by Lori Rohr), triggering a game-changing breakdown as momentous as the crumbling walls of Jericho.

The struggle for true individual identity is not a unique plot trajectory, but this clever script is an excellent choice by veteran director Don Haefliger. Large families have a language and culture all their own, and "Octette" elicited standout performances by Rohr, Beth Hitzeroth-McDonald ("Connie") and Patricia Rataj ("Martha") in challenging roles.

Playing the entire second act in Halloween outfits, the sisters literally compete for the Best Costume award, but only Betsy rips off her veils to expose herself as she truly is. And the card game is a brilliant metaphor for the constant tension between cooperation and competition, switching partners, and "playing the dummy" in a family — and a society — with complex rules.

If you love a relatable story, vibrant acting, or powerful composition, and whether you like comedy or drama, you'll find it in "The Octette Bridge Club," which runs Friday and Saturday nights through March 19th.  For reservations, call (847) 697-7374.