Life is a labyrinth of twists and turns forcing us to make decisions resulting in profound consequences that we must own.
Such is the essence of Robert James Waller’s 1992 enormously popular novel, The Bridges of Madison County. The fantasy connected to these decisions intrigued readers of the book, making it a massively successful bestseller and, 22 years later, a Broadway musical.
Now Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three has mounted its own production of the show.
The plot revolves around a married, lonely Italian-American war bride, Francesca Johnson, living on a 1960s farm in Madison County, Iowa. Her dispassionate husband and self-centered children go off for several days to the Illinois State Fair, leaving her behind.
Enter National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, on assignment to create a photographic essay featuring the covered bridges of Madison County. The stranger winds up in Francesca’s driveway looking for directions to his seventh covered bridge, the Roseman, and she agrees to accompany him for a short scouting trip.
The magnetism between the two is undeniable. This culminates in a sensual affair that quickly establishes a loving bond, forcing Francesca and Robert to make a major decision that will change their lives forever. He asks her to run away with him as he confides, “This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime.”
Francesca is faced with a life-altering choice to give in to temptation and leave her prosaic life behind or relinquish her desires and stay with her husband and children. She asks, “How do I go with you? Walk away?”
This inner struggle leads her to one unsatisfying conclusion, though her true feelings are muttered while in a dream-like tableau, “Robert, I love you. Take me with you.” Years later it is revealed that this brief affair haunted both Francesca and Robert until the end of their days.
In 1995, the book was adapted into the critically acclaimed feature film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, who took on the role of Robert, opposite Meryl Streep who earned an Academy Award nomination as Francesca.
The musical, which started previews on January 17, 2014, officially opened on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on February 20 to mixed reviews. It starred Kelli O’Hara as the lonely housewife and Steven Pasquale as the virile photographer. The Bridges of Madison County musical closed on May 18, 2014, after 137 performances.
Fast forward to Theatre Three’s recent Long Island premiere of The Bridges of Madison County. Jeff Sanzel’s sensitive direction immerses audiences in the forbidden raptures of new love before ultimately shaking them back to harsh reality.
As the unfulfilled Francesca, Tracylynn Conner grasps our hearts with her first exquisite note in “To Build a Home.” She brings the character to life, capturing the audience and refusing to let go until her final note.
Brian Gill, as the free-spirited photographer, Robert, projects a striking masculine presence, making it all too clear why Francesca might be tempted to run off with this mesmerizing stranger.
Every aspect of the production has been carefully navigated by Sanzel. In addition to both fine leading players, the supporting cast adds pathos, humor and brilliant voices to the mix.
Marissa Girgus takes on multiple roles but is especially outstanding in her portrayal of Kincaid’s ex-wife Marian who floats in, delivering “Another Life” in a style reminiscent of folk singer Joni Mitchell. With her vibrato-infused mezzo-soprano, she laments the hopelessness of lost love.
Francesca’s detached husband, Bud (Dennis Creighton), and argumentative children, Carolyn (Ella Watts) and Michael (Matthew Rafanelli), are dynamic in their roles.
Meanwhile, busybody neighbors, Marge (Amy Wodon Huben) and Charlie (Steve McCoy), conjure the show’s comic relief—especially when Marge, binoculars poised, tries to see why Robert’s car is still in Francesca’s driveway.
Scenic designer Randall Parsons seamlessly transforms the Iowa farm kitchen with rustic walls, wooden table and chairs into a prairie meadow with covered bridges that suddenly appear for scenes that effortlessly roll into place.
The sensual score—under the musical direction of Jeffrey Hoffman and accompanied by a predominately stringed orchestra—captivates.
Life is a never-ending path veering off in different directions. The directions we choose will have significant consequences that we may later visit with the nagging question, “What if?” Francesca’s dilemma will leave you contemplating your own choices and what ifs.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through Saturday, October 28 at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street in Port Jefferson. Call 631-928-9100 or visit theatrethree.com.