Reviewed by Will Stackman
Starting a play with the central character at age 90, then having her morph to age 10 in the next scene, and back again to 90 in the scene that follows definitely presents a challenge to the actress playing that role. Surround her with a named cast of 19, cover most of the 20th century, and however fine the script, it may not get produced very often. Massachusetts born Tina Howe's "Pride's Crossing", a family drama about North Shore Yankee aristocracy, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the New York Drama Critic's Best Play Award the next year in 1997. Wellesley Summer Theatre's current production is its professional premiere in the Boston area, eight year=s later. Nora Hussey's IRNE winning ensemble is more than capable of handling the play's intricacies, and once again Alicia Kahn, has the lead. Kahn, who won last year's IRNE award as Best Actress, has done roles requiring playing the same character at various ages before, but the seven ages of Mabel Tidings is a real test.
"Pride's Crossing", starts with ancient M.T. Bigelow, who swam the Channel from England to France in 1928, living in the chaufffeur's cottage on her family's estate. Barely able get about using a walker, she's decided to once again host a croquet party on the coming July 4th to celebrate a rare visit of her granddaughter and her child from France. The action recounts her life and loves from 1917 to 1997 alternating between the past and present, a somewhat Chekovian tragicomedy involving loss and survival among the gentry. Surrounding Kahn are fellow WST veterans, several of whom appeared in the IRNE winning "After Mrs. Rochester". Former Wellesley student, Heather Boas appears as Mabel's current barefoot housekeeper, Vita Bright, and as Prue, the daughter of the family's cook while Melina McGrew, currently pursuing an MFA at Actor's studio plays her granddaughter, Julia Renoir. John Boller plays neighbor Chandler Coffin, in love with Mabel since childhood while Richard LaFrance, a Publick Theatre regular as well, plays both Porter Bigelow, her alcoholic husband, and David Bloom, an English doctor and fellow Channel swimmer with whom she had a brief and unforgettable affair. The company includes Lisa Foley, who played Jean Rys in "After Mrs. Rochester", as the family's Irish cook, John Davin as her gentleman sailor father, Charlotte Peed as her neurotic mother, with Eric Hamel and Marc Harpin as her brothers The interwoven lives of the old Yankee aristocracy provide the background to Mabel's personal tragedy of a life unfulfilled. The script may have a bit too much of Mabel in her dotage, but since part of the author's inspiration was an ancient indomitable aunt, that's forgivable. Kahn's portrayal, in a role originated by Cherry Jones, is convincing at all ages.
The English novel from the 18th and early 19th century used dialogue conventions similar to drama of the period, which encourages adapting its scenes of conversation for the stage. The trick is knowing how much to include. Andrea Kennedy's new version for the Wellesley Summer Theatre opts to retain a great deal of Jane Austen's classic Regency Romance, "Pride & Prejudice", a revised version of the earlier "First Impressions", published after her first success, "Sense & Sensibility". Narrative sections are even given to various characters in story theatre fashion to move the action along. The result is a three hour visit with the Bennet's et al staged at a pace appropriate to the period and the heroine, who prefers to walk. Kennedy, who directed her own adaptation, is lucky to have a company which won last year's Ensemble IRNE to work with. Alicia Kahn captures the spirit of Elizabeth, while Melina McGrew is luminous as Jane, the eldest of the five sisters. Kahn is paired this time with her regular acting partner, Derek Stone Nelson, who plays the disagreeable Mr. Darcy with his usual gravity. Spenser Cristie is their wealthy new neighbor, who's taken a fancy to Jane. The theme of the novel, clearly stated in its famous opening epigram, is explored with attention to Austen's proto-feminist observations. Her ironic _It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. " remains this dramatization's focus, while Kahn and McGrew balance the two sides of the author's sensibilities.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are perfect roles for Charlotte Peed and Ed Peed, who also play the Gardiner's, Mr. Bennet's brother and his wife. and briefly, Sir Wm. Lucas, their neighbor. These theatre veterans find the appropriate physical distinctions for these roles, though their costume and accessories could be slightly more helpful. The remaining sisters, all Wellesley students, are flighty Lydia, played by Kelly Galvin, who also plays Darcy's young sister Georgiana; Kitty, played by Claire Davis, who doubles as his ill-favored cousin, Anne De Bourgh; and studious Mary, played by Angie Jepson. Most of the doubled roles are well separated, but there are a few potentially confusing moments where minimal costume changes aren't quite sufficient even when voice and carriage are suitably shifted.
The sweep of the novel however keeps the parallel actions moving along. The Beatrice and Benedick interaction of Elizabeth and Darcy contrasts with Jane and Bingley's much more romantic situation, even when Darcy's interference in the latter is known. Lydia's elopement with David Shaw's unsuitable Lieutenant Wickham, the son of the Darcy's family's steward provides the catalytic action that resolves the various plots. For comic relief, there's Reverend Mr. Collin's, the Bennet cousin to whom the family estate at Longbourn will pass if there's no male heir, played unctiously by Marc Harpin. Rejected by Elizabeth, he winds up with her friend, Charlotte Lucas, doubled incidentally by Jepson, who displays that character's determination. Rev. Collins is after all attached to the estate of Lady Catherine De Bourgh, played acerbically by WST regular, Gladdy Matteosian. Victoria George is Bingley's fashion-minded sister, a Londoner who disapproves of everyone, but who would probably have settled for Darcy, while Bethany Winkels plays all of the servants, and a few unnamed neighbors. Various characters pick up the narration as appropriate, but the story theatre convention doesn't add much to the action. Too much of the novel before Elizabeth rejects Darcy's proposal has been preserved, while the wider action of its second half becomes episodic after the intermission. None of the other currently available adaptations captures Austen's style so well, however, and putting "Pride & Prejudice" onstage brings this social satire to life better than the several film and T.V. adaptations have done.
On a smaller scale, Nora Hussey and her technical wizard, Ken Loewit, who designed and lit an effective unit set in pale tones for both shows, have developed a repertory theatre at Wellesley, a project which larger institutions here have not carried off as well. WST has a firm professional core, including the Peeds, Davin, Stone, Boller and LaFrance, for example, plus young actresses like Kahn who may well have distinguished careers. Through connections with the Publick Theatre they can call on men of various ages. The college's drama program provides dedicated theatre students on and backstage, while WST's summer youth program yields juvenile talent when needed. Added to the depth of personnel, there's a costume collection which allowed Lucy Dean to create effective Regency styles, and Nancy Stevenson to find believable garb for most of the last century, both requiring doubling for large casts. By focusing on scripts with literary pedigrees, and developing a fluid acting style, including accurate miming, Hussey, who received a Life in the Theatre IRNE this year, has made an enduring mark on theatre in this area.