Mabel Tidings Bigelow has lived most of her ninety years contemplating her choices in life. The feisty Massachusetts salt aspired at an early age to be the first woman to swim the English Channel in the direction opposite to the one taken by Channel pioneer Gertrude Ederle (who swam the 56 kilometers from France to England in a then-record 14 hours and 31 minutes). As playwright Tina Howe's Pride¹s Crossing demonstrates, however, Mabel's aspirations -- much like those of the twentieth-century women she epitomizes -- are typically discouraged in a society that expects women to keep close to (or perhaps, as the playwright notes in her preface to the play, just under) hearth and home.
Inspired by her ninety-year-old aunt, Howe's charming play is the opening production of the Aurora Fox Theatre's season. It is skillfully directed by Terry Dodd, a master of works that drift between the real and surreal. While some performances never attain fullness of feeling and others lack smoothness of style, the twelve-scene, two-act play slowly grows on the viewer. As performed against a Dalí-esque setting that consists of a broken clock face and sky-blue backdrop (credit Charles Dean Packard with the imaginative design), Mabel's ambivalence about being relegated to places not of her choosing eventually comes to the fore.
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Set in and near the Massachusetts shore town of the play's title (the small hamlet is across the bay from Salem), the story begins in the present day and, according to the program, moves "back and forth in Mabel's mind from 1917 to the present." Largely confined to an easy chair in the sitting room of her carriage house, Mabel bellows instructions to her day nurse, sees the occasional visitor (including her harried offspring and relatives), and makes telephone calls concerning her traditional Fourth of July croquet party. After a time, the action shifts to episodes from Mabel's past; at ages ranging from ten to sixty, she bears witness to the events that caused her to follow some paths and, not always willingly, to forsake others.
Actress Tracy Shaffer Witherspoon gamely takes on the demanding role, changing costumes (and demeanors) in view of the audience between scenes. She's at her best when traversing the character's vast emotional landscape, though her shaky technical skills sometimes impede her progress. In the early going, for instance, Witherspoon gives each line a certain import that her overall portrayal lacks: The individual remarks stand on their own well enough, but the greater sense of who Mabel has become over the years isn't present from the beginning, as it should be. Witherspoon's portrayal also suffers from poor cue pickup and an on-again, off-again New England accent that's laid on with Hepburn-ish thickness in the older version of Mabel but is nowhere to be heard in the younger versions. It's difficult to journey through someone else's mind when the roadways we're traveling are cluttered with obstacles not of the character's making.
Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue
Through October 22
Even so, Witherspoon does manage to demonstrate considerable empathy for Mabel's addled state and occasionally taps into the character's deep emotional reservoirs. That's particularly evident during Act Two, when Mabel faces a loved one's tragic demise and, later, reflects on a romance that might have been but never was. "I wasn't up to him. He was a force of nature, a tidal wave," she murmurs of the man who prepared her for the Channel swim, David Bloom (well-played by actor Jamie Menard).
A competent cast of performers ably supports Witherspoon. The impish Tedd Saint-James earns a few laughs as a couple of daredevils and a persnickety oldster; Trina Magness lends lusty warmth and childlike innocence to, respectively, the roles of a maid and a young Parisian girl; and Anne S. Myers proves alternately pliant and unbending in her matronly roles. By the time Mabel "arrives" at Shakespeare Beach near the Cliffs of Dover, Witherspoon and company nicely articulate what for many women is a lifelong dilemma: Is it better (and safer) to linger in someone else's background, or forge a course on one's own? Both, after all, require taking a plunge of some kind.