Playwright Tom Jacobson seems to challenge himself with each new project, from the ambitious interconnectivity of the two parts of “Ouroboros” to the giddy rewrite of famous literature in “Bunbury.” On the surface, his latest play, “The Friendly Hour,” may not seem stylistically in line with his other work, but it is — its audacity is simply more quiet. It is a moving and funny piece, and the performances by a quintet of skilled actresses makes the play sing with jubilant, complicated life.
Jacobson’s intriguing play structure, which tells the story entirely through meetings of a club, seeks to let the passage of life over seven decades provide the drama. This is more effective in the second act, in which characters grow old and die; the meetings in the first act run together without enough of a sense of progress or differentiation. Jacobson’s dialogue, however, and the cast are so good that this is essentially a quibble.
In 1934 South Dakota a group of young wives have formed a club called the Friendly Hour. It’s an opportunity to see their friends, raise money for good causes and, always, to have a tasty lunch. Book lover Dorcas (Ann Noble) nominates her friend Effie (Kate Mines) for president, a decision she’ll regret over the next 70 years as the two regularly clash. The teasingly scatological Opal (Deana Barone) becomes treasurer, the German-accented Isabelle (Bettina Zacar) concentrates largely on cooking, and Dorcas’ ever-cheerful sister Wava (Mara Marini) keeps her sorrows to herself.
Noble is delightful as Dorcas, bringing brash humor and charm to the role and doing full justice to more dramatic moments as well. Mines is strong as the controlling and conservative Effie, whose bossy nature is undercut by interludes of hiding in closets due to fear or embarrassment. Mines inhabits this character fully. When Dorcas and Effie become great friends again toward the end of their lives, after all of the bad blood between them has passed, we’re glad to see it thanks to the power of her perf.
Barone is superb as peacemaker Opal, strikingly different as the older version of the character but completely believable throughout. Marini is very good as Wava, a character underwritten compared with the other three. Zacar displays admirable versatility with multiple small roles, succeeding best as the sweet if somewhat dim Elvira.
Director Mark Bringelson keeps the pacing swift and the dense series of events clear, but his choice to have the characters regularly walk behind the audience to change costumes is unnecessarily distracting. Desma Murphy’s wooden home framework set creates a properly farm country ambiance, bolstered by Lisa D. Burke’s nicely wrought array of homespun outfits that get fancier as the years go by.