note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
This review first appeared in The Wayland (MA) Town Crier
Under Nora Hussey's insightful direction, the Wellesley Summer Theatre Company has deepened Tina Howe's "Pride's Crossing." Howe writes amusingly about wealthy, well-educated people who recite poetry at the drop of a hat. Playgoers assaulted by the barrage of human suffering in today's headlines may have trouble feeling that privileged but chronically disappointed socialites are worthy of compassion. But it turns out that if you prick them, they bleed.
The play opens as Mabel Tidings Bigelow, an arthritic, ornery 90-year- old, is planning a Fourth of July croquet party against the better judgment of her aged admirer Chandler Coffin (John Boller in a portrayal of increasing poignancy). Alicia Kahn as Mabel hobbles in painfully, but her skin is as smooth as a girl's -- disconcerting until we come to the next scene, when Kahn plays the 10-year-old Mabel with equal conviction. The action switches back and forth between 1997 and earlier times. We observe how young Mabel's admiration for her brother the ace diver (Eric Hamel as Phinney) sparks her dream to swim the English Channel. We see Mabel's father (John Davin as Gus) put Phinney on a pedestal and spurn his tragic-clown son Frazier (Marc Harpin). We meet the tradition-bound mother (Charlotte Peed as Maud), unable to give Mabel the maternal attention she craves.
In the kitchen we find young Mabel's refuge. Mary (Lisa Foley) and her daughter Pru (Heather Boas) tell fortunes and funny stories, roughhouse playfully, and encourage Mabel's dreams.
That the Wellesley production struck a chord with the mostly retirement- age audience seemed due to Hussey's success in drawing out the theme of disappointed souls "staying the course." For although Howe's play won the 1998 New York Drama Critics Circle Award -- and she nails the characters' culture, language and prejudices -- the script requires a firm hand. It's as if Howe knew so many tidbits about her characters she couldn't bear to leave one out. Why do we need to know how each family member died? Why is Mabel's father missing during the game of charades in 1927, and what dramatic purpose is served by having a flirtatious Russian conductor there instead? Why is Mabel's daughter mentioned at all if she is too drunk to come on stage? And why invent a spurious funeral to keep Mabel's caregiver (Boas as Vita Bright) and her rough- edged son (Hamel as West Bright) from the croquet party?
So much narrative ground has to be covered that it is hard to give each element depth. That's why Hussey's focus on the ways people just "get on with it" works well. The elderly characters (in addition to Kahn, they are Foley as Kitty Lowell, Peed as Pinky Wheelock and Davin as Wheels) are not shells of former, more vital selves, but the same people they always were. They are better, in fact, because they have the perspective of years. The body's breakdown seems irrelevant.
Thus the croquet party is more than a grasping for old times. Mabel makes the women dress in white lawn-party gowns, and when Wheels says, "Don't put on anything too riskÚ, Pinky -- I'm 93 with a weak heart," he is not a pathetic old codger but all the fun-loving versions of Wheels he has ever been. And when the women -- including Mabel's grown granddaughter Julia (Melina McGrew in a sweetly touching performance) and great-granddaughter (Kelly Galvin, exuding hope and innocence) -- laugh at Wheels's joke, they are all the ages they have ever been.
There are some confusing subthemes like whether Julia has surpassed Mabel by marrying the love of her life. Would Mabel really have captured happiness by flouting the rules of her day and marrying the Jewish doctor in England instead of the fiancÚ from the "good" North Shore family (both played men by Richard LaFrance)? She was a creature of her context, despite fighting for women. She retains one magic moment when she "plunged into the approaching wave."
The set on two levels (designed by Ken Loewit, who also did a masterful job with dappled lighting) suggests Mabel's current residence in the carriage house as well as the mansion of her early years. Nancy Stevenson designed costumes for numerous periods between 1917 to 1997. George Cooke's sound effects and music (from the "The Sally Gardens" to Pachelbel's Canon) made seamless transitions.
"Pride's Crossing" runs through June 18 at the or further information, call (781) 283-2000