The singing is gorgeous. Mark Evans is a virtuosic performer of Broadway power ballads and is equally effective in quiet a cappella moments. Erin Davie matches him in the clarity and emotional force of her vocals. As Robert and Francesca, the principals in the intense brief encounter at the center at The Bridges of Madison County, their voices are the signal virtue of Signature Theatre’s production.
Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown gives them a score that is unfailingly lush, melodic, accessible, and repetitious: one heartfelt soliloquy or duet about longing and passionate feeling after another. It all sounds luscious, but look elsewhere for musical complexity or tonal variety. Two exceptions are worth noting. In “The World Inside a Frame,” for me the best song given to Robert, he describes his creative process as a National Geographic photographer as it comes to relate to his growing feelings for Francesca.
The second is “Another Life,” in which Robert’s ex-wife Marian (Marina Pires) describes her relationship with him, casting a bit of light on his character from outside the Robert–Francesca dyad. Well-traveled in his work for the magazine, Robert, in Marian’s telling and in his own words as well, is something of an emotional Flying Dutchman. In addition to a sparking voice, Pires brings a welcome dash of vitality to the production in all her roles, which include a singer at the State Fair and Francesca’s sexy sister back in Italy.
Francesca’s backstory is that of a war bride from post-World War II Italy — the program includes an informative dramaturgy piece on the war bride phenomenon — who became a housewife and mother on an Iowa farm in the mid-1960s, where such things as Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement are too far offstage to merit attention.
She lives a humdrum life of quiet desperation with her boring, unimaginative husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), and her two squabbling sitcom-like teenagers, Carolyn and Michael, played by actors (Julia Wheeler Lennon and Nolan Montgomery) who, while good performers, are all too visibly young adults rather than teenagers.
Neighbors Marge and Charlie (Rayanne Gonzales and Christopher Bloch) represent the nice folks in the caring rural community that the play works to construct. If not Iowa stubborn, they are at least Iowa nosy when a tall, handsome, romance novel–worthy stranger parks his truck at Francesca’s place with the rest of her family out of town at the State Fair.
Playwright Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, is experienced in writing about depression. Archie Craven, the adult lead in The Secret Garden, is in the midst of a deep 10-year depression following the death of his wife. Norman’s play ‘night, Mother, about a woman discussing her planned suicide with her mother, makes King Lear feel almost cheery by comparison. So it is not surprising that the depression, an emotional dulling, that Robert and Francesca feel but do not overtly express — perhaps even to themselves — is a prominent and effective feature of Norman’s writing for them.
What animates their relationship is what therapist Esther Perel — cited by director Ethan Heard in his post–opening night speech — calls “eroticism…not sex per se, but the qualities of vitality, curiosity, and spontaneity that make us feel alive.” Francesca and Robert have a moment to be truly seen, to be fully conscious for the first time in years. It is consequently disappointing that their love scenes, delicately shaped by intimacy choreographer Chelsea Pace, feel so decorous, their erotic charge prettily represented but tamed.
The material for the supporting characters committed what I view as two theatrical sins. First, it contains more than an occasional whiff of condescension for the poor dullards, above all Bud, consigned to life in flyover country. Second — and this is a cardinal sin — it sentimentalizes death. Charlie and Bud have a sweet (and well-sung) post-mortem duet, “When I’m Gone,” atop a balcony one reaches by an almost literal stairway to heaven, while Robert eventually fades into the light at stage level. Oh death, where is thy sting in such a genteel formulation?
Lee Savage’s scenic design features barn-red, two-story structures bookending each end of the narrow rectangle of the main playing area. Lining the rectangle are several movable benches, which turn to represent vehicles and other objects at various points. A heavy latticework of beams above the stage suggests the eponymous bridges. A highlight of the set is a beautifully detailed period kitchen that slides out of one of the houses. Attention to detail matters in any production, and the Falstaff beer and aluminum ice cube trays (the kind with a handle to dislodge the cubes) were a delight to the eye.
The singers are well accompanied by the orchestra, conducted from the keyboard by William Yanesh, featuring fine solo moments for cellist Amy Stennett and violinist Madalyn Navis, and providing a full, rich soundscape for the production.
The reference above to Robert and Francesca’s “brief encounter” is intentional; the storyline of The Bridges of Madison County closely tracks that of Brief Encounter, the famous four-hanky 1945 David Lean/Noel Coward film: Two people meet by chance, feel a compelling erotic attraction, but must choose between following their bliss or hewing to the structure that has heretofore organized their lives. Whether in London or Iowa, are we to believe that a single moment of illumination, foregone, truly sustains one’s spirit through decades to come?
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Recommended for ages 17 and up.
The program for The Bridges of Madison County is online here.
Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.
COVID Safety: Use of masks is optional at all performances except August 20 at 2:00 pm and matinee and September 12 at 7:30 pm when masks are required.