‘Belles’ rings in TNT’s 2017-18 season

NILES — The title “Belles” refers to the southern roots of it six female characters, but it also could refer to the ringing bell of a telephone.

It’s through the phone that the six siblings communicate in Mark Dunn’s play, which opens Trumbull New Theatre’s 2017-18 season.

Director Lisa Bennett said, “I was cruising through one of the play catalogs and saw a short synopsis for it. I did some research on the other theaters that have done it, and it looked like a real interesting show. As the youngest of five, I understand these sibling relationships with everyone scattered around the country.”

Set in the 1990s before cellphones and texting, “Belles” focuses on the six Walker sisters from Memphis, Tenn. Peggy (Amy Burd) is the only sister who still lives there and is caring for their mother.

“She’s charged with notifying the others how mom is doing, which is how the whole thing starts,” Bennett said. “The question is, is she giving them too much information or not enough? Does she really have information to share or is she just trying to make a connection?

“When you’re living alone with an elderly parent, you need that contact. Some welcome the information and others are like, ‘Not again.’ It gives you more insight about their characters and how they fit in the family dynamic.”

The rest of the cast includes Patience Miles, Niki Cole, Lindie Schwarten, Lexi Mellinger, Danielle Eckert and Dustin Miles.

Bennett said she didn’t worry about trying to cast six women who looked like they could be related.

“I’m the youngest of five and we all look adopted,” she said. “I’m not from one of those families that all look alike. I wasn’t really paying attention to that but I wanted a narrow age range. It’s not as narrow as I’d like but I have a friend who has a sister who’s 20 years older than she is, so it happens.”

Staging “Belles” presented a different set of challenges. First, while the actors are on stage at the same time, they are communicating through telephone conversations, not face to face.

“It demands a little bit more of the actors,” Bennett said. “You don’t have someone to bounce off of, and you definitely don’t want to look at each other and break the illusion. They really have to be in the moment and reacting, just like you would on a phone call.”

She told the actors to pay attention to what they do on the telephone, whether they doodle or busy themselves in other ways and to bring that information to the characters.

“I gave them other things to work with,” Bennett said. “Each of the sets has something personal to the characters. It gives the audience insight into who the character is, but it also gives them something to act with. Usually a prop is a prop, but here it’s almost another character in the scene.”

Some of the younger actors also had no experience working with a corded telephone.

And six characters in six different locations meant designing a set featuring six different spaces, one that would create clean sightlines for the audience as the sisters interact in different combinations.

“My stage manager (Kerrie Lane) called it a game of Tetris,” Bennett said.