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BWW Reviews: Howe's Elegant Tale of Life, Love and Regret Brought to Life in Lipscomb Theatre's PRIDE'S CROSSING

With a bravura performance from Holly Allen as the play's central character and the superb and studied direction of Beki Baker, Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing is given an extraordinarily artful production by Lipscomb University Theatre, onstage at the Shamblin Theatre through April 7.

Howe's rather fanciful memory play wears its heart on its crisp linen sleeve, offering audiences a glimpse into the life of Mabel Tidings Bigelow (played with such spirit by Allen that it's easy to fall just a little bit in love with both the actress and the beautifully written character she plays), a spirited 90-year-old former swimming champion who in her later years finds herself looking back over the multitude of events in her life that have shaped her and challenged her. As the story of Mabel's remarkable, though sometimes deceptively mundane and usual, life unfolds onstage before you, you are likely to find yourself thoroughly caught up in the minutiae of that life as the panoply of events and individuals move about-not unlike the ebb and flow of the tides that buffet the beaches of her hometown of Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, an upper crust enclave of Beverly, Mass.

Mabel grows up the youngest child and only daughter of a privileged New England family. Fueled by ambition just as certainly as she is fired up by the sibling rivalries that exist in the Tidings household (oldest brother Phin, the family's golden boy, is an Olympic diving champion, and troubled brother Frazier refers to himself as the family's "black sheep" while charming and disarming all those around him), her dreams of glory drive her onward, ultimately leading her to become the first woman to swim the English Channel from England to France. That achievement is wholly cut from fictional cloth by the playwright Howe (who so completely charmed her dinnertime audience before the show's curtain that it seemed almost an effrontery to leave her company to watch Baker's deft rendition of her play)-Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel, although she took the somehow easier route from France to England, Mabel tells us in her direct and matter-of-fact manner.

During a post-show discussion, Howe explained that she was inspired to write the play for her aunt, a spinster who was never able to break the chains of family responsibility, something which inspired the playwright to create the fanciful and imaginative world in which Mabel lives and loves. The play's action unfolds at a brisk, almost provocative pace as we meet the aging sportswoman at 90: She's unwell, living with cancer, yet she is determined as ever to live a vital life, welcoming her beloved granddaughter and great-granddaughter to her home (she now lives in what once was the chauffeur's cottage on the family's rambling estate), an event she plans to celebrate with a Fourth of July croquet party-doctors' orders be damned.

Mabel's joie de vivre-and more than a little sense of entitlement derived from the privilege enjoyed by the "best families"-pervades the play, ensuring that Howe's storytelling is vivid and vibrant, the characters brought to life with colorful excess and theatrical flourish which is somehow grounded in the reality she creates for Mabel and her friends and family, resulting in a genuinely heartfelt portrait that is completely accessible and thoroughly inspiring.

Mabel's life is an amazing amalgam of events-some uplifting and stunning, others shockingly boring in the manner of anyone's day-to-day life-just like yours and mine. The difference, of course, is in the way those stories are told. Howe can weave a tale like no one else, her feminine perspective providing the very thoughts and structure that give her plays the unique voice that set them apart from the works of her contemporaries in American theater. Thus, there is a feminist sensibility to the retelling of Mabel's adventures-which challenge any preconceived notions one might have about a woman's role in early 20th century polite society-although it never borders on anachronism and never do you detect even one false note of womanly bravado or pretend brashness. Rather, Mabel's unique character seems borne in her, a part of her DNA, which makes her all the more believable and, at times, confounding.

In that respect, I must divide the credit equitably among the playwright Tina Howe, the director Beki Baker and the actress Holly Allen. Howe's pedigree-both by virtue of her worldly and sophisticated family and her eminence as a literary figure-is evident throughout, lyrically underscoring the onstage action. Baker's approach to the material is focused and resolute, though never didactic or dry; instead, her direction feels organic and lovingly expressed, leading her exceptionally talented ensemble of actors through the emotional minefield that exists in the dramatic arc of Mabel's life.

Allen, who is perhaps Nashville's greatest theatrical treasure hidden in plain sight-everyone knows and respects her (she's a casting director of notable achievement), but her onstage appearances are far too few and in between (which, I would surmise, is indicative of her continuing search for the roles that speak directly to her heart)-gives a performance that might best be described as revelatory if I didn't already know what a beautiful spirit and gifted actress she is. She so thoroughly becomes Mabel during the course of the play's action that it's easy to suspend any measure of disbelief and to deliver oneself completely to her keeping during the play. Her portrayal of Mable is wonderfully nuanced and pitch-perfect: Whether she is in her 90s, battling the vagaries of a long-lived life, or as a high-spirited ten-year-old struggling to claim her place in the family's already crowded spotlight, Allen offers an ideal interpretation of the character. Surely, this is the realization of an actress' dream, to play such a multi-dimensional role while being given free rein to examine her own frailties and the effects of her own life upon her approach to her artistry.

The artistic partnership of Allen and Baker represents the very best of Nashville theater.

Baker has surrounded Allen with a wonderful band of players with whom to play; there is an exuberance, a feeling of exhilaration throughout Pride's Crossing that gives life to Howe's play, keeping its richly drawn heart beating rather magnificently in the process. By bringing together some of the city's best professional thespians to work alongside the cream of the crop of Lipscomb's theater students, Baker shows her deft hand at casting, creating an ensemble of performers that appears seamless and uniformly focused and committed to the task at hand.

Among the professionals, Phil Perry has never been better than he is as Mabel's longtime friend Chandler Coffin, a poet of some note, who has pined for her since childhood, lost in The Shadows of her more handsome, more charming suitors who claimed her heart and her hand. Perry's performance is revealed over the course of the play to be multi-layered and represents his complete devotion to his craft. Larry Bridgesmith is all bluster and buffoonery, it seems, in four roles that showcase his acting abilities even despite the similarities that can be found among the four men. He's Mabel's overbearing father, a full-of-life Russian orchestra conductor, her jealous and borderline abusive husband Porter Bigelow, and her old friend Wheels Wheelock, he of the "doddering Wheelocks, if they are still alive."

Bonnie Keen, a gifted comic actress, is given the opportunity to show off those comedic skills in her sweetly sentimental portrayal of Pinky Wheelock, Wheels' devoted wife, but she is most affecting, though not unsurprising, as Mabel's difficult and diffident mother, who battles her own obvious demons while struggling to contain her daughter's spirit amid the social confines of the early 20th Century. Wesley Paine, a stalwart of Nashville stages and a longtime audience favorite, seems only to get better as she gets older: Her performance of Kitty Lowell is nicely amusing and unaffected, but her portrayal of the grown-up Pru (a serving girl in the Tidings household played in her youth by Kristi Mason) is somehow more compelling and genuine.

Matthew Raich, himself just one year out of Lipscomb's theater program and well on his way to graduate study at Yale Drama School, ranks among the professional players in the cast, bringing the role of David Blume to life with tremendous charm and an easy affability that is ideally suited to the role. As the unseen object of Mabel's desires, David is created in our own imaginations as we wish to see him-drawing upon the descriptions offered by Mabel, her envious husband Porter and the long-suffering Chandler-but suffice it to say that he is larger than life. When we finally meet David Onstage, he is with Mabel as she prepares her world record-shattering Channel crossing, Raich crafts a characterization that exceeds our ideals. He is more charming, more handsome, more attractive and more heartrending that we could possibly ever have imagined. You can see his love for Mabel etched without artifice across his face as he begs her to run away with him and you get a very palpable sense of his heartbreak as she rejects him, for fear of upending her family's design for her wedded life. And despite the obvious theatricality of the plot device provided by his role, Raich never plays a false note that would undermine his character's poetic grace.

Truth be told, however, it could well be that the performances of the student actors in Pride's Crossing are the most noteworthy in Baker's superb ensemble. Drawing upon the experiences of seeing them in their earlier performances, I found myself moved by the devotion to their craft that each so deftly portrays in the play. And, think of this: How overwhelming must it have been to perform Pride's Crossing in the presence of the playwright, who just happened to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist for the work? Yet each of the young actors displayed stage presence in abundance as they took on the challenge of performing the playwright's words for her just as adroitly and confidently as they do at each performance before or after.

Caleb Pritchett again displays his wide-ranging versatility as Mabel's beloved brother Frazier, who struggles so mightily to define his place in the Tidings family despite his own flights of fancy and his efforts to maintain his individuality. Pritchett is equally impressive as the difficult teenaged son of Mabel's housekeeper Vita, played so effectively by Kristi Mason, who gives a full-throttle performance as the contemporary character and as the young Pru (the role played in later life by Paine). Mason's performance is most notable in her well-defined approach to each woman, who are refreshingly and knowingly different and unique.

Tyler Ashley plays Mabel's Olympic diving champion brother Phineas with the style and demeanor of a well-heeled sportsman, exuding confidence and swagger in doing so. Very intelligently, Ashley never goes overboard in his portrayal, keeping Phin down-to-earth and grounded in so doing. Sydni Hayes plays Mabel's ten-year-old granddaughter Minty with a certain controlled abandon that creates a sense of youthful naivete cloaked in the more mature sensibilities of an actress who clearly knows what she is doing.

The beautiful Stefani Paige brings commitment to her role of Julia, Mabel's granddaughter who lives in Paris and whose life recalls some troubling memories for the older woman as she spies the similarities about the two women's wedded travails. Committed and focused, Paige convincingly plays the mother of a ten-year-old while showing her own youthful spirit in her interactions with Mabel and her older friends, walking a fine line to create a credible portrayal.

Finally, my hat is off to Lipscomb student Grafton Thurman, whose performance as the younger Chandler Coffin is so thoughtfully presented that he seems the very mirror image of Perry's portrayal of the man in his 90s. Thurman's obvious understanding of his role and his thoughtful approach to the character is nothing less than awe-inspiring and he deserves special recognition for his superb performance.

What with Howe's beautiful prose, Baker's fine direction and the performances of actors at their best, Pride's Crossing is also given terrific design and technical strengths which add to the play's impact and its obvious effects on the audience, including a cynical theater critic so obviously moved by what he saw onstage. David Hardy's set design provides the perfect setting upon which Howe's story is told, while his lighting design provide an added visual treat, bathing the proceedings in the colors of the sea amid the trappings of the homes of America's ruling classes, while June Kingsbury's costumes clothe the characters in believable period fashion and add layers of emotional realism to the already colorful raiments written for them by the playwright. Jake Harbour's sound design adds further ambience to the onstage action, drawing the audience deeper into the intimacies of the story being told.

Pride's Crossing. By Tina Howe. Directed by Beki Baker. Presented by David Lipscomb University Theatre at the Shamblin Theatre, Nashville. Through April 7. For details, go to www.theater.lipscomb.edu; for tickets and more information, call (615) 966-7075.


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis