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A CurtainUp Review
Pride's Crossing

Keep your eye on the clock which overarches everything that happens in Tina Howe's new play, Pride's Crossing. It symbolizes not just the inevitable march of time but how for old women like Mabel Tidings, the play's central character, time loses its sharp edge as memories of youth tend to become more real than the often frightening present where, to quote Shakespeare (Hamlet, Act 5, sc.1, line 23) "age with his stealing steps has claw'd me in his clutch."

Above all, of course, you'll want to keep your eye on Cherry Jones. I've watched her star rise with the proprietary pride of a proud parent, ever since I "discovered" her in Paula Vogel's Baltimore Waltz. I've seen her display her versatility in a period revival (The Heiress), another modern playwright's work (Jon Robin Baitz' The Film Society), as a dynamic narrator with the New York Philharmonic.

As Mabel Bigelow at ages 10 through 90 she creates a multifaceted portrait of a woman who becomes fully known to us even as she keeps a lid on some of the thoughts too dark to revisit even in her meanderings through various stages of her life. Her character's humor, passions and sense of loss all merge together in this absolutely spectacular performance. As she thumps across the stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, pushing a walker before her, you know she's NOT ninety, and yet she IS ninety. Without a shred of makeup to line her face or a wig to cover her straight brown hair, she manages to capture the nuances of a ninety-year-old woman who can barely walk, hear or see and who's weathered several strokes as well as a move from the family estate to a servant's cottage. Her infirmities notwithstanding, she remains a plucky and frequently funny survivor. To give just one example, there's a scene where her visiting great-granddaughter is terrified when she finds a dead mouse. Not Mabel. She too may have once been scared of mice but she's no longer fazed by such minor disturbances and so unceremoniously dumps the little critter into the nearest flower pot.

I try to avoid hyperbole, but terms like tour-de-force and luminous are not exaggerations when used to describe the way this actress segues back and forth between crotchety but feisty nonagenarian, teenager, young woman on the verge of adventure, young mother and middle-aged widow. She is so good and listening to her beautiful voice and watching her is such a pleasure that you can't really begin to think about any flaws the play might have until the intermission or the very end -- if at all.

To give credit where credit is due, Ms. Jones' splendid performance owes no small measure of its success to a finely layered script and a solid production and supporting cast all expertly pulled together by director Jack O'Brien.

About the play: In a nutshell, it's about a woman from a wealthy Boston family who dared to venture into the deep waters of the English Channel for a record-breaking swim, but who pulled back from risking marriage outside her social milieu. As the only girl in a family whose life revolves around yachting and croquet parties and shepherd's pie, a casual remark from her father about Getrude Ederle's channel swim, fires her imagination and determination to follow Ederle's watery path. Already engaged to another Boston Brahmin, alas, one who drinks, she falls in love with the young Jewish doctor who rows the escort boat during her swim but as she explains "somewhere between Dover and Calais I lost my nerve."

It is that loss of nerve, the choice of the known over the unknown that pertains for other characters in the play -- (From Mabel's mother to a cook's daughter to friends who turn up at the second act croquet party) -- that makes Mabel's story a universal tale of lives lived in quiet desperation with the occasional moment of happiness "when you least expect it."

The play is not without its flaws. The poetical flights of dialogue are occasionally too saccarine though this is offset by the authenticity of the Yankee speech patterns. The structure, for all its cleverness is at times a bit too predictable and repetitive. And, while we learn as much as we need to know about Mabel's husband and most of the Tidings, especially the mother who's "too wrapped up in her own misery" to really see her, Mabel's relationship with her unseen, much-married daughter is glossed over by comparison. Also, it's not very clear why Miss Howe has made the granddaughter admired by Mabel for "staying the course" -- (she's an architect who also married a man from another world) - a fourth generation link in a pattern of ignoring advice about staying away from handsome men. (Julia's mother to Mabel: "you'll fight over the mirror"; Mabel to her great-granddaughter: "Beauty and virtue rarely go together").

These quibbles aside, the play is studded with bright dialogue. It's structure is cunning in that every word and every prop contains the seeds of revelation in another scene. "Row, Row, Row Your Boat hummed by the 90-year-old Mabel sets the stage for the young Mabel on the precipice of d"iving into waters leading her to a distant shore, and , if she stays the course, long-range happiness. The trophy great-great granddaughter Minty thinks she broke, leads to a devastating scene between Mabel and her jealous, hard-drinking husband. And as that incomplete trophy symbolizes an incomplete adventure, so the croquet party that serves as the chief navigational device for moving between past and present also symbolizes the game of life. Except for that swim to Calais, Mabel always "played by the rules" but now she plays any way she can. And if something goes wrong, as when Minty inadvertently hits her with a croquet ball, she doesn't keep a stiff upper lip but lets out a resounding and angry howl.

Since, like many dramatic memoirs (or, as is the case here, fictionalized memoirs), this is also a family play it's fitting that two of Tina Howe's aunts served as her creative wellsprings. It was at Aunt Hat's watering hole in Pride's Crossing, Massachusetts that the playwright first developed her own aquatic passion. And it's her ninety-year-old Aunt Maddy who is a partial role model for Mabel Tidings. Though Aunt Maddy never complained about a life lacking adventures (not even those afforded by marriage and motherhood), Ms. Howe used her playwright's freedom of invention to give her this one major achievement and etched her portrait to show the anger and tenderness that are part of what gives many an old woman the strength to be more than "a tattered coat upon a stick" -- the famous Yeats metaphor alluded to several times in the play.

The Rest of the Cast: The fact that Ms. Jones is very much the star of Pride's Crossing, is not to say that her six thespian colleagues are not deserving of high accolades. While Ms. Jones portrays one character at various ages, the other players skillfully play a variety of people in Mabel's past and present. In Angie Phillips' and Dylan Baker's case, director O'Brien has them migrating from male to female. While Angie Philips displays great versatility in her three female roles, I found her Phineas Tidings a bit too Victor-Victoria derivative. David Lansbury and Casey Biggs differentiate each of their respective four parts with finesse. Kandis Chappell does well by both Maud Tidings and Julia Renoir. Even young Julia McIlvaine more than ably fills two pairs of shoes as Mabel's very young daughter and later as her great-granddaughter.

The Design Team: Ralph Funicello's pale beige set, enhanced by Kenneth Posner's lighting, is a feast for the eyes. It's also elegantly functional, with its clever tracks for furniture to glide smoothly forwards and backward. Costume designer Robert Morgan, besides creating just the right costumes for each period of the century, deserves a special medal for meeting the challenge of dressing the always-on-stage Mabel so that she can end each scene in her heavy channel-swimming tank suit. One scene, where that top layer is a delicate, handkerchief edged yellow chiffon party gown is a particular marvel of his deft layering of Ms. Jones' outfits.

I was going to mention the coincidence of having the two theaters at Lincoln Center concurrently presenting two very different plays with in which anti-Semitism figures importantly. Two women waiting to use the bathroom facilities at the end of the show were obviously struck by the same parallel so I'll conclude with their little interchange:

First Woman: Isn't it something how these people are just as anti-semitic as the Russian landowners in Ivanov?
Second Woman: So what else is new? There's no language barrier among those who think a Jew in the family will taint their watery blood line

by Tina Howe
Directed by Jack O'Brien
starring Cherry Jones
With Angie Phillips, Dylan Baker, Casey Biggs, Kandis Chappel, David Lansbury Julia McIlvaine
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, 150 W. 65 St. Lincoln Center. (239-6200)
11/06/97-1/25/97 (opening 12/07)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 12/08/97
Extended to April 5th!
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