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.