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Crossing time, the Channel, and convention

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Tina Howe's romantic play Pride's Crossinghas something for everyone: re-creation of historic periods and events, Upstairs Downstairs-style social reflections on the role of women, time-shifts from 1920 to the present day, realistic New England local color, fantasy dalliances, and a climactic, exciting swim across the English Channel.

          Blackfriars Theatre has assembled an attractive, strong cast of six actors to play almost two dozen roles. They support the incandescent star role, Mabel Tidings Bigelow, whom we see shifting back and forth from her adorable childhood to her realistic appearance as a cranky, two-hundred-year-old woman whom everyone still adores.

          Well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration. Mabel is merely 90 when we first see her and when we keep returning to her and her remnant companions. And Vicki Casarett plays her with great charm and talent, often creating realistic suggestions of the physical problems and restrictions of old age. She also masters, in flashbacks, petulant little-girl mannerisms, and, at Mabel's triumphant high point, a thrilling image of a strong, beautiful, athletic young woman entirely free from the restrictions of her society.

          A lot of Tina Howe's writing is exaggerated to require pleasant but obvious playacting, and is no more truly believable than the delicate young woman playing Mabel's super-athlete older brother. As director Jean Gordon Ryan's notes remind us, a character remarks in the first scene that "we should be allowed to switch genders once in awhile." And half of the cast does.

          It's an interesting switch to see a Blackfriars production designed by artistic director John Haldoupis that doesn't have beautifully painted elaborate scenery and handsome costumes. Instead, the set has neutral, realistic fragments of walls and furniture and characterizing costumes that can be changed with great speed in plain sight onstage so that we can move the story back and forth in time and place as Mabel reminisces about her life.

          In a present-day segment, Mabel says that all her family has died, most of them not so admirably. Mabel ruefully notes that she is "the end of the line, the sediment at the bottom of the glass." She finally admits that her life had at least one lamentable compromise with convention: she hadn't the nerve to break her engagement to her handsome, empty fiancé and run off with the dashing Jewish swimmer she loved.

          Still, Mabel cuts an impressive figure in the uptight New England of the 1920s. She says that she will swim the Channel and has already so far outdistanced her disapproving mother that she can't even hear her mother's orders to stop.

          Her final memory of her big love scene does get windy and isn't as passionate as it might be. It is hard to forget that in earlier scenes we've seen the actor who effectively plays Mabel's irresistible, illicit love not only playing her troubled, sexually insecure brother but also a silly old lady in a fussy dress.

          We get a touching scene at a funeral in a Unitarian church when old Mabel has a nice reunion with Pru, one of the kitchen maids we saw Mabel play with when she was a rebellious child. Now the giggly girl is a worldly-wise grandmother, and she offers one of the play's many amusing comments. "You know the old joke," Pru tells Mabel. "The only time you hear the name Jesus Christ in a Unitarian church is when the janitor falls down the stairs."

          Credit director Ryan with a seamless ensemble work. Pride's Crossing is very much Mabel's play, and Casarett takes full possession of Mabel. Still, Cheryl Farney is lovely as Mabel's controlling mother and loving granddaughter. So is Cori Colb as Mabel's Paris-bred great-granddaughter and Mabel's whiny little daughter. Ross Amstey handles varied roles well as Mabel's father, Mabel's husband, an old codger, and a Russian conductor.

          I particularly liked David Jason Kyle, Anne Barr, and Jeffrey Alan Miller. Kyle plays a poet, kitchen maid, and doctor. Barr is old Mabel's indispensable housekeeper, young Mabel's older brother, young and old servant Pru, and another doddering old lady at Mabel's final croquet game. Miller plays the housekeeper's brutish son, Mabel's funny but disturbed brother, a bosomy old lady at the croquet game, and Mabel's lost love, the Jewish swimmer.

Pride's Crossing,by Tina Howe, directed by Jean Gordon Ryan, plays at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 7. Tix: $22 ($20 for seniors). 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org.

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