You might want to bring a box of tissues with you when you see the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s “Bridges of Madison County.” Yes, you’re likely to shed a tear or two, but you’ll also laugh, sigh, and find yourself perched on the edge of your seat as you take in the action.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve read the novel by Robert James Waller or seen the 1995 Clint Eastwood film. You’ll forget everything you think you know about this story upon hearing the first lines of music as the light fades in and the show begins.
Set for the stage by award-winning playwright Marsha Norman, you’re immediately drawn in. You’ll find yourself entrenched in the heart-wrenching tale of a lonely Italian house wife who calls 1960s Iowa home.
Francesca, the housewife, finds her world toppling around her when she meets National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid. It doesn’t help matters that her husband Bud and two children Michael and Carolyn happen to be out-of-town when Kincaid makes his grand entrance into the small town Francesca calls home. As you follow the two through their steamy handful of days together, you’re met with a beautiful tale of love, passion, and sacrifice.
The Rep’s live performance can hold its own outside of the riveting story. The score is reason enough to see the play. From classical operatic numbers with a twinge of Italia to foot stomping country buffered by nimble fiddles, the music is as vast and wild as the exhibited range of emotions.
There’s even room for a bluesy piece, “When I’m Gone,” which, if you listen too closely, might have you feeling sentimental. If you like music, you’ll enjoy the show, as Musical Director Mark Binns and his team go above and beyond.
From there, the production is only brightened by the cast performances. Many of the actors and actresses have performed on Broadway, and the fluidity of the overall action attests to that.
The onstage tension between Francesca (Joan Hess) and Robert (Michael Halling) had me squirming in my seat. Hess makes scenes that could have easily been lifeless, gut-wrenching with her vocals and portrayal of a woman looking back on her life and asking, “What if?”
The moments in which the chorus sings in unison were some of the stronger and most touching in the play, especially early on as the cast depicts the harshness of farm life through the number – “You’re Never Alone.”
The funnier moments shine through in the interactions between teenaged Michael (Henry Nettleton) and Carolyn (Julia Nightingale), who were each good for a half-dozen laughs. Plus, sassy, yet caring Marge (Ann-Ngaire Martin), the family’s long-time neighbor, had the audience in an uproar over her jazzy number, “Get Closer.”
Action aside, it’s easy to become engrossed in the set. The omnipresent, abstract structure meant to conjure up a bridge was eerily sinister at times, yet also a bright beacon, reflecting the nuanced conflict within the heart of the play.
The use of light in the setting helped create a true Midwestern feel, and also mirrored that internal struggle between right and wrong. The night sky beautifully contrasted against the backdrop of a multicolored ever-changing horizon with hints of blue, orange, red, yellow, and gold.
Everything combined guarantees you’ll feel transported and completely lost in the action – the ultimate mark of a good production.
You won’t want to miss this show, as it is the last time for long time Artistic Director Robert Hupp to direct. Plus, this showing at the Rep marks the American Regional Theatre premier for “Bridges of Madison County,” outside of Broadway.
Grab a ticket, and then sit back and get ready to fall in love.