Iowa can seem such a mythical place. That crossed my mind as I took in the Keegan Theatre’s top-notch production of the bittersweet, mystical romance of The Bridges of Madison County. Sure, Bridges is sentimental in its outlook, but no more so than say the male-oriented movie Field of Dreams, also set in the cornfields of a mythical Iowa–a movie in which a man gets to play catch one more time with his long-deceased dad among other deeply melancholy, tear-inducing moments (at least for me).
As cast, directed and choreographed by Kurt Boehm, the Keegan production is a look at what some may consider better days in America, at least as concocted with the music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Parade) and book by Marsha Norman, based upon the mega-hit novel by Robert James Waller.
The Iowa of Bridges has no bombast. It is sweetly gauzy. There is a tight sense of community. A strong sense of place. A commitment to family, and making sacrifices for the well-being of children. All this, if one is white. All this if being an outsider living in the American heartland is being a WWII war bride from Italy who comes to Iowa with her ex-GI husband to help run a farm and have children. Her most obvious outsider status: speaking with a slight accent. It is a lovely, gauzy sense of what America was, what Iowa may be–and definitely a look backwards.
Boehm’s casting choices for the three lead characters are impeccable and far beyond their voices and acting talents. The casting of the luminous, beautifully voiced Susan Derry as an unmoored woman named Francesca was a masterstroke. Derry conveys such deep emotive power with her plaintive soprano voice, dark eyes and the way she carries herself, first as a weary woman, missing passion in her life.
How does Derry do this? Well, in the manner in which she asserts herself in a community in which sameness and not making waves is the way of the world. And in several scenes, just taking off her shoes to show she is not leaving her home but is staying, even with an unexpected gentleman caller in her presence. Or the way her dresses and hairstyles change over time. (Costume Designer is Alison Samantha Johnson).
The two male leads cast by Boehm have this Bridges take on a mature, caring quality. This is no steamy production but way deeper, rooted somewhere in characters this side of what they may have been one before. They are men with two different visions of living life; of how to love Francesca.
A beaten-down husband named Bud (Chad Wheeler) with responsibilities sings this paean to his wife from “Something from a Dream”–
“And to me she’s still like something from a dream.
And to her, I’m like the guy who keeps the lights turned on”
And a rolling stone of a wandering photographer named Robert (Dan Felton) who never stays anywhere very long, sings this ode to Francesca in “One Second and a Million Miles”–
“For the first time in my life,
I am not outside the moment
With a camera in between me and the world”
Keegan’s production of Bridges is one of cocooning into restrained love with cuddles, snuggles, hugs and the glow from mature connections between lonely, lost people. It a production of adrift people asking if there is more for them? Keegan’s take is of love as a life jacket to save drowning people. Lust is subdued.
Yet for me, the bones of the musical are sappy and tame. I began to wonder how might any production of Bridges move forward into the uncharted territories we are in at this moment in time? For instance, would different casting with not all White actors make a difference with the “What if” type questions Bridges asks an audience to consider? What if say, the photographer character of Robert was cast by a POC? So, after you see the show, please let me know–what do you think?
The Bridges of Madison County is a musical full of love, sympathy, and compassion. As produced, it is about a certain kind of people known today as the World War II Greatest Generation. As Act II came into more focus, I began to fidget with this. I wondered if Robert was Francesca’s long sought, long-term soul mate or just a character she needed for just a moment in time, to remember herself, to awaken herself. For me, Derry’s Francesca was worthy of better than a rolling stone like Robert. Wasn’t Francesca of the generation of feminists that Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique?
Let me end with this note. One of Francesca’s last lines is, “But what is true is that we loved, and that I loved and that I love and I will always love and love is always better.” could have come off as way too sweet to me. Then I decided her line was a precursor to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony speech about love.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
The Bridges of Madison County plays through September 2, 2018, at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.
Note: For another take on Keegan’s production of The Bridges of Madison County, read Em Skow’s review.