In Raleigh Little Theatre’s rib-tickling production of The Dance on Widow’s Row, a delightful new must-see romantic comedy by African-American playwright and Burgaw, North Carolina native Samm-Art Williams (Home), four wealthy widows in the fictional Eastern North Carolina coastal community of Port Town invite the area’s four most eligible bachelors to an intimate soiree for eight. Having already buried nine husbands altogether, they know that neighbors’ tongues will wag like the tail of a starving dog with the key to the butcher shop; but they are willing to defy small-town mores and endure vicious gossip if there is a chance that they will meet Mr. Right tonight.

The he-ing and she-ing that went on Jan. 31 during the opening-night performance of The Dance on Widow’s Row was a scream, thanks to smart and savvy staging by Durham, North Carolina director John Rogers Harris and crackerjack characterizations from an all-star cast of Triangle theater veterans.

Harris, who previously directed RLT’s stirring production of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s masterpiece “Master Harold” … and the boys, milks every drop of laughter from Williams’ script. The uncredited indoor-outdoor set (another splendidly realistic recreation by RLT resident scenic designer Rick Young?) provides plenty of prime playing areas for the shenanigans that ensue as the four women ruthlessly pursue their choices among the three bachelors who brave the curse of “widow’s row” and courageously show up for a night of drinks and dancing.

Lighting designer Glen E. Toney artfully illuminates the women’s feisty pursuit of bachelors number one, two and three; and costume designer Vicki Olson contributes a handsome array of the snappy suits and dazzling glad rags, some of which just have to be seen to be believed. And the superb sound design by Ed Bodell and technical director Roger Bridges leavens the hilarious on-stage antics with mellow jazz.

Barbette Hunter is a hoot as the fiercely territorial Magnolia “Mag” Davis, the hostess for the evening. She has her cap set for Deacon Hudson (LaMark Wright) and will brook no competition. But just how far she will go to hook the good deacon comes into question as the evening unfolds.

LaMark Wright is smooth — oh so smooth — as the handsome deacon who obviously enjoys becoming the target of several women’s attention. C. Delton Streeter is funny as Hudson’s jumpy buddy Newly Benson, a nervous ex-soldier who would rather would rather be back on the battlefield than face the possibility of hand-to-hand combat with four amorous but possibly murderous widows. And Kenneth Hinton cuts a fine figure as clothes-horse Randolph Sears, the last guest to arrive and the first to check out.

Andrea R. Smith is terrific as the statuesque actress Simone “Simi” Jackson, who is just a little too stuck on herself. Sherida McMullan is highly amusing as Lois Miller, a possible poisoner (after all, both her husbands died of food poisoning!) brings the spicy chicken wings and potato salad that the other guests consume.

But Angela Ray steals the show with her hilarious impersonation of the two sides of Annie Talbot. One side is a mousy, scripture-quoting church lady in a long, long dress. The other side is a consummate party girl ready to shimmy the night away in a short red dress that would make Jezebel blush.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents The Dance on Widow’s Row Saturday, Feb. 1, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 2, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 5-8 and 12-15, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 9 and 16, at 3 p.m. in RLT’s Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $13 Wednesday, $17 Thursday and Sunday, and $19 Friday-Saturday, except $11 student/senior matinee Feb. 2. (NOTE: Audio description will be available Feb. 5.) 919/821-3111. [inactive 7/1/03].