Theater Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (Signature Theatre in D.C.)

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by Lisa Troshinsky on August 25, 2023

in Theater-D.C.,Theater-Regional


Given its syrupy and soaring sentimentalism, Robert James Waller’s very short 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison County was amazingly effective. The tale of “love-that-could-have-been” had a universality which resonated with readers big time: It’s one of the best-selling books of the 20th century: over 50 million copies sold. After the 1995 Clint Eastwood / Meryl Streep movie version, Marsha Norman, bookwriter of The Secret Garden and The Color Purple, joined forces with composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) for a short-lived 2014 Broadway musical, whose wistful and powerful score always seemed better-suited as a chamber musical. Sensitively directed by Ethan Heard, Signature Theatre‘s rendition, which opened last week, the emotional story is just as, if not more, captivating than previous outings, as we truly get to hear amazing actors make the Tony-winning songs soar to greater heights of elation and agony.

Mark Evans as Robert Kincaid and Erin Davie as Francesca Johnson
(Daniel Rader)

Erin Davie, an exquisitely beautiful soprano, perfectly captures the nuances of Francesca, a love-starved Italian war bride, embodying the character’s bittersweet turmoil of having an extramarital affair that could blossom into a long-term relationship. Davie’s extraordinary ability to act out the emotions of a song turns what might have been schmaltzy softheartedness into credible heartache. Vocally and physically, her chemistry with co-star Mark Evans as love interest Robert Kincaid is intensely believable.

Mark Evans and Erin Davie (Christopher Mueller)

Set in 1965, Francesca is a resigned but yearning rural Iowan housewife. She is married to “Bud” (Cullen R. Titmas) a steady man and good provider, but with little imagination beyond his yearly crops. During a three-day excursion in which her husband and teenage children (Julia Wheeler Lennon as Carolyn and Nolan Montgomery as Michael) go out of town to an agricultural fair, Francesca encounters a National Geographic photographer, Kincaid, who stops at her house looking for directions to a Madison County covered bridge, the sixth and final one he will photograph for the magazine. Robert is virile, worldly, artistic, and “Temporarily Lost” — both geographically and emotionally. He is a fine match for Francesca’s need for diversion. Their intense affair will have emotional repercussions that last a lifetime.

Mark Evans and Erin Davie (Christopher Mueller)

Although the story centers around the lovers, the supporting cast adds, rather than takes away, from their love progression. Situated in a close-knit, conservative Midwestern town where “You’re Never Alone” — a fact that has both positives and negatives. When in a crisis, neighbors can rely on each other for help, but that closeness sometimes turns into imposing nosiness.

Rayanne Gonzales as Marge, Christopher Bloch as Charlie (Daniel Rader)

One such neighbor, Marge, played by powerful singer Rayanne Gonzales, spies on the two love birds with alarm, but comes to Francesca’s aide with a meal to feed her family when they return. She even shares in their longings during the tearjerker ballad “Get Closer/Falling Into You.”

Marina Pires as Marian (Daniel Rader)

Robert’s ex-wife Marian, played by a feisty Marina Pires, who also fills multiple roles, gives us a much-needed glimpse into Robert’s unsuccessful romantic past by singing “Another Life” that she imagined for herself and the photographer.

Marina Pires as the State Fair Singer and cast (Daniel Rader)

Lee Savage’s inventive alley theater scenic design allows the audience – seated on two sides of the playing area – to be privy to action that is sometimes isolated (such as Francesca and Robert’s first meeting). Other times, the set merges together so we can see in real time scenes taking place simultaneously. The latter is especially effective during Act II, when the lovers are in bed placed at the State Fair where daughter Carolyn has entered her prized steer in a competition. Uniting both of Francesca’s worlds — her love for Robert rivaled by her love and devotion to family — allows the audience to more palpably experience her struggle. Thus, the play’s poignant climax when Francesca must choose between her new love and her familial obligation is a coup de théâtre.

Julia Wheeler Lennon as Carolyn and Nolan Montgomery as Michael
(Christopher Mueller)

Jesse Belsky’s lighting design captures the ennui and fullness of Francesca’s life with sunsets and sunrises that span the stage’s perimeter, along with romantic hues that help to infuse the story with desire.

What could have been a contrived “chick flick” for the stage proves to be much more. I dare even the most cynical not to be deeply moved by this production.

Cullen R. Titmas as “Bud” and Julia Wheeler Lennon as Carolyn
(Daniel Rader)

The Bridges of Madison County
Signature Theatre
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave in Arlington, VA
ends on September 17, 2023
for tickets, call 703-820-9771 or visit Signature

Erin Davie as Francesca and the Cast (Daniel Rader)

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