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Thirteen Hands

Smoothly and confidently directed by Marti Maraden, Carol Shields' "Thirteen Hands" gently tells the life stories of four generations of women. Using the game of bridge as a metaphor (the characters are named North, South, East and West), Shields plays on her strengths as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist by offering acute observations of the deepest layers of human behavior. And while "Thirteen Hands" is no "Stone Diaries" (the prize-winning novel) --- the play simply doesn't dig as deep, and its characters are not as fully realized as they might be --- Shields' descriptive powers blaze as brightly onstage as in the pages of her novels.

With:
Cast: Marion Gilsenan (West), Barbara Gordon (North), Maralyn Ryan (East), Dixie Seatle (South).

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.

Thirteen Hands

TORONTO

Production: A Canadian Stage Company presentation, co-produced by the National Arts Center, of a play in two acts by Carol Shields. Directed by Marti Maraden. Set and costumes, Sue Lepage

Creative: Lighting, Kevin Fraser; original music, sound and musical direction, Phyllis Cohen; choreographic consultant, Yvonne Coutts; assistant director, Molly Thom. Opened, reviewed Feb. 20, 1997, at Canadian Stage Company's Bluma Appel Theater, St. Lawrence Center; 854 seats; C$52 ($40) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Marion Gilsenan (West), Barbara Gordon (North), Maralyn Ryan (East), Dixie Seatle (South).

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