Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pride’s Crossing"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by Tina Howe
directed by Nora Hussey

Mabel Tidings Bigelow … Alicia Kahn
Vita Bright … Heather Boas
Chandler Coffin … John Boller
West Bright … Eric Hamel
Frazier Tidings … Marc Harpin
Gus Tidings … John Davin
Maud Tidings … Charlotte Peed
Phinney Tidings … Eric Hamel
Julia Renoir … Melina McGrew
Minty Renoir … Kelly Gavin
Mary O’Neill … Lisa Foley
Pru O’Neill … Heather Boas
Anton Gurevitch … John Gavin
Porter Bigelow … Richard LaFrance
Kitty Lowell … Lisa Foley
Pinky Wheelock … Charlotte Peed
Wheels Wheelock … John Davin
Dr. Peabody … Marc Harpin
David Bloom … Richard LaFrance

PRIDE’S CROSSING, a 1997 Pulitzer finalist, is Tina Howe’s tone-poem about Mabel, a well-bred American woman who defied convention and swam the English Channel in 1928; beginning with Mabel in arthritic old age, Ms. Howe leads the audience back and forth through time, showing her heroine in various triumphs and defeats, and closes with the young Mabel preparing to plunge into the Channel as well as a love affair with her trainer, a British Jew, whom she will later lack the courage to marry. “Tone-poem” is a nice way of saying that PRIDE’S CROSSING is lyrical and episodic with little drama save that of missed opportunities and roads not taken but much of it clings and satisfies: the aged Mabel trying to reach for a lamp without falling; the family cook and her daughter, in silhouette, waving in slow motion as Mabel swims out to sea; Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” in a game of charades; a delightful croquet game played amongst the remainder of Mabel’s social circle and decked out in period fashions; the young Mabel’s confident leap into the future.

The flowing tableaus inevitably grind to a halt since the actress playing Mabel must constantly change costumes in full view of her audience and the Wellesley Summer Theatre production adds its own stops and starts with the ensemble re-arranging the scenes, themselves, but it compensates with an exceptional performance by Alicia Kahn in the leading role. I first encountered Ms. Kahn in Wellesley’s recent production of THE BOOK OF HOURS where she was too shrill as the doomed journalist in war-torn Belgium; Mabel runs a closer parallel with Ms. Kahn’s wild-colt tendencies as she is a corseted spirit ever fluttering to break free, even in her nineties. Ms. Kahn uncannily evokes old age sans make-up, wigs and caricature --- as I scribbled several years ago, the secret to playing old age is that the body lags behind the will, and Ms. Kahn’s octogenarian is ever at sixes and sevens over the withered prison in which her soul has been trapped (her youthful Mabel is hard and green in comparison). On the afternoon I attended, there were a number of elderly women in the audience; when Ms. Kahn entered the playing area, leaning on a walker at a perilous angle, several women instinctively reached out in concern, not knowing who she was --- Ms. Kahn, with her brown hair and unlined face, had passed the credibility test before she had spoken a word.

Ms. Kahn’s fellow actresses in THE BOOK OF HOURS are also on display, here: Charlotte Peed once again makes motherly sounds but harsher ones, this time around (the mother is the evening’s undeveloped villainess), then she doubles as a sweet, daffy socialite; Melina McGrew is given little to do as Mabel’s rueful granddaughter but is eloquent in her silences; and Kelly Gavin has softened up considerably as the great-granddaughter so that I barely recognized her, at first. The Mss. Kahn and Gavin shared a lovely, fleeting moment in the semi-darkness as the latter helped the former change into her pinafore: once Ms. Kahn, now a girl, was ready, Ms. Gavin smiled up at her, artless and childlike, and Ms. Kahn mirrored her expression which, in turn, instantly shaved decades off her own characterization --- lovely. John Boller is touching as Mabel’s bachelor friend Chandler, still shyly courting her after all these decades --- his is but a minor role but Mr. Boller shows how capturing a period’s body language justifies everything one says or does, onstage: in Chandler’s case, his dry, proper decorum, in keeping with his upbringing, has kept him in check for so long that all that remains is an immaculate ice cream suit, a boater hat and a heart forever barred from love’s fulfillment.

Ken Loewit’s modest, two-level set suggests shallow waves lapping against the shore as well as a drifting back into the past and he has beautifully lit it in soft, tropical shades that are out of sync with Mabel’s rocky world but if you put reason aside and feel along with her, instead, you’ll agree that they are just right.

"Pride’s Crossing" (1-18 June)
The Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre, Wellesley College, WELLESLEY, MA
1 (781) 283-2000

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide