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A journal and a cozy New England bed-and-breakfast provide the source material and the setting for Bedside Manners, the extraordinary monologue play by Lisa Stephenson, running at the Blue Heron Arts Center through November 21. Book-ended by the lyrical musings of a warm, motherly innkeeper, each monologue represents a single entry in the B&B's journal, each written by a different woman, resulting by evening's end in what seems like a minuet of monologues illustrating the diversity of even the smallest random sampling of feminine humanity. It's quite an achievement, for although the guests may come and go with the seasons, they are unified by the fact that all their lives are in transition. Like the seasons ever fleeting, their journey is one of temporal moments in a temporal life.

What's remarkable about each woman's tale is how each has assigned to it a specific, often exquisitely balanced tone--some monologues are both written and delivered with a crisp poignancy, while other pieces are more removed from their emotional core, exuding an almost deliberately sinister frigidity. One spine-chilling monologue concerns a "secret" abortion--clearly a topic to stir the mind and beat the heart--while a chortle-inducing story of a desensitized wedding consultant has a rhythmic, comedic punch that lightens the evening just in time.

As appropriate to the lifecycle of many of nature's creatures, Bedside Manners begins in spring--just in time, for example, for a cunning female assassin to ruefully recall her unnerving international exploits. The women of summer, on the contrary, are warm, with the most exuberant observations coming from a blind woman--played by Lucia Puccia Ruvolo, a longstanding member of the acclaimed Theatre by the Blind--who decides to embrace her new life willfully, rather than focus on what she's already lost. The women of autumn almost unanimously reflect life's inevitable departures. And, finally, the women of winter bring forth a mixture of chills and a tincture of thrills, all at once contrasting a professional skier's exuberant hopes and hoop-hockey dreams with the vengeful streak running through an angry, very-wronged woman.

Credit also must go to the director, Tom Franco, who weaves the spells, shocks and stories of these 15 women with a fluidity and instinctual feeling for pace that compliments Stephenson's roller-coaster compulsions, thus maintaining the equilibrium between dark and light, hot and cold, the refreshing and the familiar.

The production even speaks to our subconscious, with a stage warmly dappled with beautiful lighting that changes hues by season, aided by special gels projecting amorphous images that come to symbolize and crystallize the moment.

The play would undoubtedly breathe a little better if it weren't restricted to such a teensy-weensy stage (sitting in the space itself is rather like wearing a girdle). But by turning the intimate seating arrangement into a virtue, Franco has blocked the play so that audience members can see most of the bold angles coming from the characters, each making bold choices in what is often the boldest of terms.

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