Janine Divita stars as Francesca. Photo by Jennifer Robertson.
Based on the novel of the same name, Marsha Norman’s The Bridges of Madison County, onstage now through Theatre Raleigh and under the direction of Lauren Kennedy Brady, is a bittersweet love story that strikes a chord with any viewer who has ever been in love at the wrong time.
Rebecca Leigh Johnson’s rustic set brings the story, set in 1965, beautifully to life. Part of the set has been constructed high above the stage, allowing the viewers to see straight into even the most private areas of the main character’s home and, by extension, her life. Complete with functional stairs, a creaky porch swing, and all the little touches and details that make up a home, Johnson’s set is as inviting and believable as the timeless story itself.
Speaking of the story, it centers upon dutifully-married Francesa (Janine Divita). An Italian immigrant who has raised her family and built a home for herself in the United States, Francesca has more brewing under the surface than meets the eye. She has a longing for the past, for her former home, and for the person she once was and dreamed she would be, emotions beautifully and subtly expressed through Norman’s gentle script and Divita’s powerful, multi-layered portrayal.
It’s not just Divita’s acting that is powerful either. Equipped with a rich, operatic voice, she easily nails the show’s opening song “To Build a Home,” which serves to introduce Francesca’s world, including her husband Bud (Scott Wakefield), her son Michael (Jack Russell Richardson), and her daughter Carolyn (Callie Colvard). Together, the four create a believable, playful family dynamic, with Wakefield making his character especially lovable, if a bit clueless.
However, as the story roars into motion, the family goes away, heading out of town to a fair for a few days and leaving Francesca on her own. It is then that, by chance, she meets the man who will change her life indelibly. Strong, artistic Robert (Patrick Oliver Jones) is in town taking photographs, and he and Francesa form a quick and powerful bond. The two actors share strong chemistry that makes the story’s relationship feel all the more real and engrossing. From their initial nervous interactions to their eventual intensity, careful staging and strong acting make their story all-consuming, powerful, and incredibly real. And, while their story is the heart of the show, there are other stories told here as well. Supriya Jaya offers a magical portrayal of Marian, Robert’s ex, and her delivery of “Another Life” is one of the highlights of the show, while Heather Setzler is both hilarious and endearing as nosy neighbor Marge. There are also ten live musicians who provide the perfect musical accompaniment for every scene, making this story feel fully realized and every bit as enveloping as good theatre should be.
Ultimately, The Bridges of Madison County is a beautiful story of lovers, but it’s also a story about the search for understanding, the emptiness that so many people feel, and the sometimes-strangling constraints of responsibility. Theatre Raleigh’s production brings out all of these themes, allowing this beautiful work to shine in a wonderful, complete way that pays honor to the beauty and truth this tale contains.
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