West (Marion Gilsenan) is the play’s anchor; her flashbacks take us through the stories of the various bridge partners over the long history of these weekly games, and set the scene for the final gathering of the four generations. Unfortunately, you have to wait all the way to the end to experience the play’s fusion of feminist politics and traditional values, when a daughter of one of the original bridge partners confronts her mother’s friend and accuses her of wasting her life.
“My mother was an alcoholic and you did nothing for her — you just let her be,” the young woman cries. “Yes,” says West, smiling slowly and reaching for the young girl’s hand, “we just let her be.”
It is an exquisite moment of revelation and a confirmation for an entire generation of female homemakers unwittingly displaced by feminism. Coming as it does in the ’90s, this moment has a uniting, healing power that is all the more profound.
But with this scene relegated to the tail end of the play, there is a sense of having had to sit through the rest to get there and a desire to pick up the scene and move it to the beginning, to let it point the way. To be fair, earlier in the play there are moments of clarity and recognition, including many good laughs; but a trim here and there, and a shift of emphasis, might strengthen the backbone of the story.
Yet even as it stands now, “Thirteen Hands” is a gracefully crafted play that well serves its exquisitely detailed production. Gilsenan, a veteran of the Shaw Festival, gives the performance of her career as West, while the three others (Barbara Gordon, Maralyn Ryan and Dixie Seatle) contribute mightily with lovely moments of their own. Maraden has clearly trusted her company and given them room to flourish, without losing the delicate edge the play demands. It is the joint expertise of this ensemble that finally and irrevocably bonds the women in Shields’ story.