The Southern Literary Festival took place in Nashville for the first time in its 76-year history, coming to a close Sunday at Lipscomb University. The festival included workshops and readings by notable authors such as poet and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Mark Jarman, Eisner Award-winning comic book writer and artist Eric Powell, and short-story author and memoirist Mark Richard, among others.
The big dramatic component of the festival was the presence of playwright Tina Howe, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee (Coastal Disturbances), Obie Award winner (for off-Broadway achievement) — and in 1998, winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Pride's Crossing, which opened at Lipscomb Friday. The author attended the performance following a gala dinner in her honor.
Howe has taught playwriting at a number of prestigious universities, including a longtime gig at Hunter College in New York. Her dinner address concerning the pitfalls and unexpected surprises that await the working playwright was wonderfully insightful and entertaining, and her remarks at the post-show talkback were generous in praise of the Lipscomb production.
Pride's Crossing continues through this weekend, and — Ms. Howe's encouraging assessment notwithstanding — the production is a mixed bag of earnest acting styles, problematic casting choices and erratic pacing that doesn't always do justice to the highly literate script. Still, the end result is not without allure.
Howe's opus has nothing to do with the South — it's a rather WASP-ish mini-epic, focusing on 90-year-old Mabel Tidings Bigelow, a New England grande dame who once swam the English Channel. Her granddaughter and great-granddaughter have arrived from Paris for their annual visit, and Mabel invites her elderly friends over for a celebratory croquet party. Thus the stage is set for flashbacks through Mabel's long life — including her privileged Brahmin upbringing, her family dynamics (including her mother's narrow view of a woman's societal role), her achievements as an athlete, and also her frustrating marriage, which is juxtaposed against her memory of the true love of her life, the dashing David — the man she let get away.
Local pro Holly Allen accepts the challenge as Mabel, and hers is a full evening, shifting her character radically from very old to very young while trying to find the sweet spots. Her vocals as the elderly Mabel recall the sharp bristle of Katharine Hepburn's later years. The transitions to the younger Mabel come off more naturally. On balance, it's a laudable performance — even heroic — and that's a very good thing, because otherwise this rather wordy and lengthy piece might sink under the weight of its formality.
The cast features 11 other players, and most of them double up on roles. Since this is a university-sponsored production, director Beki Baker draws from the pool of Lipscomb's young talent, who share the stage with Nashville theater veterans like Bonnie Keen, Wesley Paine and Phil Perry. Unsurprisingly, this situation results in unevenness, especially in cases where the casting is age-inappropriate, including sophomore Sydni Hayes' attempt to pass as a 10-year-old. (She makes a noble effort, but the age disparity makes suspension of disbelief difficult.) Other younger players, such as Matthew Raich, Caleb Pritchett and Grafton Thurman, have worthy moments.
David Hardy's sets and lighting are sufficient, but devoid of dazzle. Ditto June Kingsbury's costumes, which cross generations effectively but lack distinction.
The world of Pride's Crossing — with its precious language, geriatric comic touches, bygone cultural scope and frequent literary references that could have been drawn from a typical high school English syllabus — is an esoteric place. Fortunately, the play offers a measure of charm and engagement that still shines through in this production.
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I always read your column BEFORE I watch the show anymore. It's better that way.
What's the other review you read?
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