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Kennedy’s ‘Thursday Night Bridge Circle’ Meets Its Quota of Quips – and More

Theatre Charlotte production runs through March 24 at Queens Road barn

Cast members of Thursday Night Bridge Circle onstage in early 1970s suburban housewife clothing
Cast members of ‘Thursday Night Bridge Circle.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Since the last time I watched a live performance at St. John’s Baptist Church in 1987, I haven’t cut a deck, played a hand, won a rubber or even bid a single No Trump — I’ve even lost track of my copy of Charles H. Goren’s Point Count Bidding

But since that night when PlayWorks staged The Octette Bridge Club at St. John’s, I haven’t needed much knowledge about the game of bridge or its culture. My last brushes with the game were in Sunday columns I would read in the arts section when The Charlotte Observer was a traditional newspaper.

So it was a little concerning, when I sat down at Theatre Charlotte for the premiere of Ray Kennedy’s The Thursday Night Bridge Circle, running at the Queens Road barn through March 24, that I found no less than four bridge teachers were credited in the playbill for their contributions. My concerns were thankfully unfounded. Visitors to the barn will not be assailed with bridge terminology, the intricacies of bidding, or even extensive card play.

Louise Kennedy’s Thursday night circle is a looser agglomerate than P.J. Barry’s octet, which included an unwavering group of eight sisters. And it’s only Louise’s circle tonight because hostess chores hopscotch from member to member on successive Thursdays. Nor are participants constant, we learn, as Louise welcomes us to her cheery, symmetrical, split-level living room — two tables flanked by two sofas — a luxe scenic design by Tim Parati that gives us peeks at the garden and the foyer.

Tonight, for example, Louise’s college co-ed daughter, Mary Carter Kennedy, is in town to play one of the hands, to be partnered with Louise’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Kennedy, who has earned a risqué reputation in LaGrange, North Carolina, as a liberal. 

Since one of the regulars can’t make it this week, dear Louise is bracing herself for the arrival of Miss Virginia, who will likely be roaring drunk as soon as she can guzzle sufficient booze. 

Cast members of ‘Thursday Night Bridge Circle.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Excitement is ratcheted up further by a new player that only our host knows: Carmella, feared to be a judgmental Yankee — and to have a profession! Imagine that!

The two tables are filled out by Bootsie and Cluster, gals from Louise’s generation, and two more elders, Miss Caroline and the eternally disapproving Mrs. Coltrane, Louise’s mom. You can bet there will be plenty to rouse Mom’s umbrage, beginning with the fact that housemaid Margaret and her daughter Bernice will be mixing drinks, pouring beverages, and preparing the hors d’oeuvres. Mary Carter also has a truckload of disclosures that will disconcert her granny.

Hosting such an exhilarating event is so intricate, complex and daunting that Louise — or anyone who hosts the circle — cannot be expected to participate in the card-playing. The standard of perfection is too high for a hostess to divide her attention. Tables must be carefully set, partners thoughtfully chosen, and place cards placed exactly so at every chair.

Sadly, Carmella hasn’t chosen the best night for her first sampling of Southern hospitality — or the best year, for that matter. It’s 1970, LBJ is midway through his second term and the backwater of LaGrange still has separate black and white schools, bathrooms, and post offices. 

“It’s always been that way,” Miss Caroline complacently declares, and none of the LaGrange ladies except the liberal Mrs. Kennedy seem to suspect that Margaret or Bernice might be discontented with the racist status quo.

Needless to say, Kennedy has concocted a comical time bomb that is primed to explode before our eyes. Desegregation has arrived and Louise’s mom and husband have decided to send their imperiled offspring to military school — a betrayal of Louise’s bestie, Bootsie, who was counting on her public-school solidarity. 

Cast members of ‘Thursday Night Bridge Circle.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Nor will Mary Carter, an activist at school, take this well, while Carmella and Mrs. Kennedy will be reliably alarmed. Toss in a stray N-word from Virginia when she’s sufficiently lubricated and you may conclude that a polite evening of bridge has been scuttled.

Before his fictional kindred took the stage on opening night, the playwright Kennedy spoke to us about his autobiographical work and introduced us to the real-life Mary Carter, proudly sitting in the third row. So when Tonya Bludsworth entered as Louise, it was a bit like a continuation of the playwright’s monologue, except that the hostess was even more giddy with excitement and nervousness because she didn’t know how the evening would go.

Sketching each lady who would sit in each bridge chair, the intro was a bit draggy despite Bludsworth’s fretful charm, particularly since the playwright doubles down on his intros by granting Louise mystical foresight into who is arriving at her front door — tripling down when she greets them by name. 

Most people will be delighted with Kennedy’s style, which endows most of his characters with the ability to come up with a Southern-fried quip or a salty simile in nearly every sentence.

Almost by magic, Kennedy is able to differentiate between his ladies anyway, thanks to the big family squabble and divides in politics, class and age. Dennis Delamar’s stage direction is as handsome as Parati’s set, elegantly accessorized by “props team” Lea Harkins and Lois Marek. 

No doubt Delamar’s successes are facilitated by the presence of at least three more actor-directors in his cast: Corlis Hayes as Margaret, Paula Baldwin as Mrs. Kennedy, and Bludsworth as the fourth ace. Assistant director Dee Abdullah is no slouch, either, as a dramaturge.

Kennedy’s lapses into logorrhea may be the result of his not realizing the full power of his script, which bursts forth with terrific force on Queens Road — first when Hayes reacts to the bombshell dropped by Kathryn Stamas late in Act 1 as the soused Virginia (which Grace Ratledge as Mary Carter and Ashley Benjamin as Bernice refuse to let go) and then a stunner by Ann Dodd as Mrs. Coltrane when she is unexpectedly confronted deep in Act 2.

Cast members of Thursday Night Bridge Circle onstage
Cast members of ‘Thursday Night Bridge Circle.’ (Photo by Kyle J. Britt)

Costume designer Angeli Novio accepts the challenge of making the hotsy-totsy New York lawyer, Stephanie DiPaolo as Carmella, stand out among the local LaGrange fashionistas in her haute couture. 

DiPaolo does her Long Island accent lightly enough to maintain her stature as an evolved Yankee outsider, but instead of leaning more into her legal expertise and feminist superiority, the playwright lets her devolve into an excuse to more thoroughly introduce us to the natives.

No matter how charmingly Jenn Grabenstetter as Bootsie and Amy Pearre Dunn as Cluster expound on the origin of their Dixie nicknames, I just don’t care, even if it did incentivize them to audition. Let’s get to the juicy stuff quicker! 

And when we do get there, let Baldwin have more space to bemoan and bewail how her son could conspire with Mrs. Coltrane to send her dear grandson off to a boarding school. It’s a glaring plot point that needs to be addressed — and weren’t we in the middle of a war in 1970?

Read more of Perry’s theatre reviews here

Regardless of how much more meat Kennedy could pile onto our plates (and how much candy he could discreetly remove), Hayes makes an enduring impression in her climactic monologue, deftly calibrated by the playwright not to become a tirade. 

Ginger Heath, anointed my first Best Actress many years ago, gets surprisingly little to sink her teeth into here despite her imposing wig, but that only spotlights the exploits of the newbies all the more.

Benjamin absolutely commands the stage when she unexpectedly returns in Act 2 as Bernice, a bit of a surprise after her badly miked debut as Tinman last September. That leads to a rather memorable sequence of assertiveness, contrition and reconciliation begun by Dodd in her QC debut as the formidable Mrs. Coltrane. 

I didn’t expect to weep after intermission, but I did, even while the quips kept landing.

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