Decades before Andy Warhol popularized the idea of 15 minutes of fame, the sharply accelerated rate of world communication in the early years of the 20th Century, via radio, telephone and moving pictures, provided vehicles for instant celebrity. Suddenly, information was available with seemingly lightening-fast speed, and America's thirst for knowledge-as-entertainment created instant, albeit short-lived, fame for those who could sit on a flagpole for days, eat the most hot dogs at a time or, perhaps the most glamorous and challenging of feats, swim the English Channel. The reasons why people sat so long, ate so much or swam so far could certainly be varied, but the chance to simply be noticed was luring enough for most.
Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing, winner of 1998's New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play, and now receiving a fine re-mounted at the intimate T. Schreiber Studio, is suggested by the accomplishments of Gertrude Ederle, a New Yorker who in 1926, at the age of 19, not only became the first woman to swim the English Channel, but swam the 21 mile length in 14 hours and 31 minutes, beating the existing record by nearly 2 hours. Although her crossing was, in its day, considered a significant achievement in demonstrating the athletic capabilities of women, her recent passing in November of 2003 was barely covered by the national press.
But rather than write an Ederle biography, Howe's channel swimming central character, Mabel Tidings Bigelow, is drawn more from her own Aunt Maddy, who grew up in a society where women were not expected to be noticed and, in the words of the author, "never left home, never married, and never swam a stroke." Intended as a celebration of the passion and power women acquire with age, Howe writes in her notes on the play, "There's no rage like old lady rage, just as there's no tenderness like old lady tenderness."
Set in Mabel's nonagenarian years, when she lives modestly in what was once the chauffeur's cottage of her old family estate in Pride's Crossing, Massachusetts, a family Fourth of July gathering triggers off a series of memories, and Mabel considers the limitations she faced as a woman living through 20th Century America and her lifelong quest to rise above them.
As the play continually jumps from scenes in 1997 to scenes as far back as 1917, director Glenn Krutoff's youthful cast of seven is challenged to play twenty characters, adjusting their age, nationality and sometimes gender without the assistance of makeup. An audience willing to suspend disbelief is treated to some exceptional work by the talented ensemble, especially from Tatjana Vujosevic as the elderly Mabel. Hunched over in her walker, continually facing forward and shouting every word so that her own deaf ears can hear what she's saying, Vujosevic's physical performance could seem cartoonish in lesser hands, and her ability to create such a convincing character in a tiny, three-rowed theatre, alternating with scenes where she plays the same character as a much younger woman, is a pleasure to watch.
Asaki Oda's lovely and symbolic set consists of lonely pieces of furniture, each seeming adrift in its own section of the floor which is painted to resemble the channel waters, with the help of Joe Saint's gentle lighting. The walls are covered with stately white tree branches, whose only leaves are golden picture frames mounting the simple artifacts of a lifetime. David Kaley supplies a lovely assortment of period costumes, especially when it comes to outfitting Ms. Vujosevic.
And although it has little to do with the play proper, Jessica Milspaw delivers what is perhaps the most adorable pre-show "turn off your cell phones" speech in town.
Pride's Crossing plays Thurdays through Sundays through April 18th. Visit t-s-s.org for information.
For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com