PITTSFIELD — Two weeks into rehearsals for Town Players of Pittsfield's production of Nora and Delia Ephron's "Love, Loss and What I Wore," director Melanie Rivers learned that rights to produce the play were lost.
Rivers huddled with Town Players officials to find a play that would suit the four actresses who already been cast. They came up with "Win/Lose/Draw," a grouping of three one-act plays by Ara Watson and Mary Gallagher that Town Players had done as a reading in April 2013.
The fully staged production — with Rivers directing actresses Diedre Bollinger, Jackie DeGiorgis, Dana Grieb and Mae Rogers — begins a two-weekend run Friday night at Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave.
"Win/Lose/Draw" is the collective title for three two-character plays — "Little Miss Fresno" by Watson and Gallagher; "Final Placement" by Watson; and "Chocolate Cake" by Gallagher — about pairs of women with opposite temperaments and/or backgrounds whom fate and circumstance have brought into contact.
"Little Miss Fresno," with Bollinger and Rogers, is set at the semi-finals of a local beauty pageant where two competitive mothers — one a newbie; the other a veteran — tangle.
"Final Placement," also with Bollinger and Rogers, is set in the office of a child welfare caseworker who is dealing with an abusive mother who is determined to regain her son, who's been removed from her care.
The finale, "Chocolate Cake," with Grieb and DeGiorgis, is about two women — one, a simple and timid country wife; the other, a brassy, intimidating, big-city wife of means — who meet in a hotel room during a women's conference.
"Win/Lose/Draw" premiered in April 1983 at Provincetown Playhouse in New York's Greenwich Village, where it ran for 42 performances and earned Christine Estabrook a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Play.
"The plays are funny but the situations are real," Rivers said during a pre-rehearsal interview at The Whit, where she was joined by her actresses. "In the midst of humor there is some tragedy."
Especially, Bollinger and Rogers say, in "Final Placement, in which a desperate young woman, Luellen James (portrayed by Rogers), plays whatever cards she can from a deck that seems to have been stacked against her, in order to regain custody of her son.
"Luellen throws herself out there to get her son back," Rogers said. "I feel she's trying to manipulate the situation the only way she knows how to do."
"She does what she does because it's all she knows," Rivers added.
The landscape is markedly different for Bollinger and Rogers in "Little Miss Fresno" — the highly competitive world of the child beauty pageant where the stakes are high not only for the young contestants but also for the parents. It is certainly the case for the mother Rogers plays, a woman who keeps score along with and on the judges. Think "Dance Moms'" Abby.
"She's been around the block in the beauty pageant world," Rogers said. "I grew up with people like that."
Bollinger's character, by contrast, is anything but. She and her daughter are novices. It's their first pageant and she is uncertain and nervous.
Food, how others sees us, how we see ourselves are the ingredients of "Chocolate Cake," the third play in the collection which again matches a strong woman, Delia (played by DeGiorgis), with a woman, Annamarie (played by Grieb), who less certain of herself, less experienced in the world at large.
"Delia makes the rounds of women's conferences and at this one, she decides to take Annamarie under wing," DeGiorgis explained.
"There is an interesting contrast between the two. My character, Delia, is a wreck although, on the surface, she looks as if she has everything together. Annamarie seems at sea although, in fact, she has everything together."
"I think Annamarie sees Delia as being larger than life," Grieb said. "I think she goes away at the end of the play a new woman."
For Rivers — a Town Players veteran who is no stranger to the stage either as an actress or director — the challenges to this point have been plentiful, chief among them, she says, keeping the characters real and believable, and maintaining the balance between the humor in the writing and the pathos. And because it is the most physical of the three plays, "Chocolate Cake" carries the additional challenge of making sure everything moves the way they should.
For all the challenges, the project has been rewarding, Rivers says, especially in terms of working with her actresses on getting beneath the skin of the play's characters.
"The writing (throughout) is exquisite," Bollinger said, "extraordinary. None of these chyaracters is a cartoon.
"There is a different world in the plays I'm in. It's both a challenge and rewarding to figure out do I understand this character, can I do her justice, can I just be in the moment. "
"These plays are all character-driven," Rivers said. "My hope is that we have believable characters (on stage) and that people will go away thinking about these women, the situations they are in and how they reflect life."
"We really want the audience to be unsure which play is win, which is lose, which is draw," DeGiorgis said. "Life is life."
What: "Win/Lose/Draw" by Ara Watson and Mary Gallagher. Directed by Melanie Rivers
Who: Town Players of Pittsfield
When: Friday through June 25. Performances — Friday and Saturday evenings at 8; this Sunday afternoon at 2
Where: Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield
Tickets: $15; seniors and students — $12; Town Players members — $10
How: (413) 443-9279; at the door