KPBS AIRDATE: February 19, 1997
A world premiere. A woman’s courageous story. A fascinating centerpiece and a play that’s a little rough around the edges. The description applies equally to “Pride’s Crossing” and “A Diva Like Me.”
At the Old Globe Theatre, there’s a delectable treat center-stage. It’s Cherry Jones, winner of last year’s Tony Award for Best Actress, for her performance in “The Heiress.” There, she was powerfully restrained. But in Tina Howe’s new play, “Pride’s Crossing,” she really gets to show her range and flexibility. And it’s awesome.
Jones plays Mabel Tidings Bigelow, a crusty old 91 year-old from Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, who’s looking back on her life, trying to recount it and, as she puts it, “exit with a flourish.” Without leaving the stage, Jones is 90 then 10, 90 then 20, 90 then 30, recreating little scenes from her fictional character’s long life, like brief snippets of a home movie that portray more than a person, but an era and an adventurer. MT, as she’s known, went against the grain of her society, her family, her gender and her social standing, to swim the English Channel in 1928, setting the world record. She readily realized that dream, but somewhat out of character, she never fulfilled the fantasy of running off with her true love, choosing instead to remain faithful to her handsome, alcoholic fiancé. We never feel that she learned much from her life — she lived it, she replays it, and she goes off.
Despite a cast of seven that rapidly changes roles, costumes and genders, Jones and MT remain the most interesting part of the play; to be more specific, Jones as a nonagenarian is nothing short of brilliant. With no opportunity for wig or makeup adjustments, she contorts her face and body to age before our eyes. It’s astonishing. And her final exit, although abrupt, is stunning. Likewise Ralph Funicello’s set, a dreamy white on white. Only sometimes is the magically ethereal quality of the technical work and Jack O’Brien’s fanciful, flowing direction matched by the writing. When it is, the production scores. But there is more focus and tightening needed for a palpable hit.
The same can be said for “A Diva Like Me.” Ren Woods has had a wild ride: child singing star beginning at age 8; financial, physical and emotional abuse by a greedy, manipulative manager; up and down relationships with men; and featured roles in amazing places — from Bob Hope’s last USO tour to Vietnam, to TV’s “Roots,” the national tour of “The Wiz” and the film version of “Hair.” She has a magnetic personality and a spectacular voice; but her concert-theater piece highlights the latter more than the former. This new hybrid genre needs some polishing before it’s ready for the Big Apple.
In an effort to make her story more theatrical, Woods and co-writer Julian Plunkett-Dillon have lost some of the from-the-heart, personal feel. It’s more like acting than truly connecting with the audience, and that’s what’s gotta drive this show. I’d like to see it back to its original intermissionless form, with more dancing on the part of the backup singers and rapper. No complaints, though, about the 4-piece onstage band, which glides seamlessly from rock to R&B to jazz to blues and back again. One of Lisa Harlow Stark’s songs in particular is a knock-out: “Soldier of Misfortune,” a beautiful ballad of the urban black man. When Ren really puts her heart into a number, we’re smitten. She always hits the true note with her singing, but not yet with her storytelling.
(MUSIC…. “Soldier of Misfortune” under and out)
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.