Channel Surfer

Off Center Theatre Company attempts to keep Pride's Crossing afloat.

Jul 11, 2007 at 4:00 am
If you look deep into the back pages of sports encyclopedias, you just might discover that in 1926 Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel. She swam from Calais, France; fourteen hours later when she crawled up onto the beach in Dover, England, she was as famous as a queen for a day. Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing, which is being staged by Off Center Theatre Company, tells the fanciful story of ninety-year-old Mabel Tidings Bigelow, who two years later reversed Ederle's path, swam the twenty-one-mile route from England to France, and now, at the end of life's journey, has little to show for her daring other than a broken trophy and conflicted memories.

The central metaphor here is one of an individual going against the tide, be it the Channel currents or the wave of conformity. As this grand tableau skips about through 80 years in Bigelow's life, we learn that although Mabel was fearless when thrashing about in the sea, she was not so brave on land. Mabel is a Boston Brahmin, a scion of wealth, the product of an anti-Semitic upbringing. Although her only true love was a Jewish swimmer, Mabel allowed him to drift away rather than to confront the will of her restrictive family.

Pride's Crossing draws heavily on Howe's own life. Not that she was a swimmer. But she grew up in wealth; her real name is Mabel (Tina is a nickname). She rebelled against the dictates of her austere Bostonian mother and married a Jew. Just as the play tells the story of a forgotten woman, Howe has acknowledged that Pride's Crossing was a "last gasp" attempt to salvage her own fading reputation as a playwright. Perhaps she succeeded, because in 1997 the script was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.

Awards aside, Pride's Crossing is a challenge to stage. Like her protagonist, Howe possesses a streak of defiance. She all but dares people to produce her plays. The set for Coastal Disturbances, her only Broadway production, is all sand. There must even be holes onstage so that a character can be buried in the sand. No surprise, then, that Coastal Disturbances is rarely seen. Here again, with Pride's Crossing the technical demands are enormous. Howe wants us to visualize and even feel Mabel's social milieu. The text calls for realism in extremis.

Off Center has sought to do an end run by simply ignoring the props and most of the sets. Some plays are actually enhanced by this approach. You can stage Death of a Salesman in front of black drapes, and it will retain its power. But here, the bare-bones approach exposes the script's thin veneer. Its central conflict is hardly original. Why does Mabel swim? In order to attract the attention of her oblivious mother. (Howe all but ignores the fact that Mabel becomes an equally deficient mom.) But then, the text is mostly surface. Although we meet four generations of women, no one has much to reveal. Howe would have us believe that the rich spend the better part of their waking hours reading poetry, so we get verse recitations as a substitute for dialogue. It's confusing enough that nine performers are enacting twenty parts. But then when they start switching genders (young actresses hobbling around as old men, etc.), Howe reduces her own story to bad Paula Vogel.

Director Margeau Baue Steinau has allowed too many cast members to act by accent (mostly Boston and Irish). As Mabel, Kelley Ryan wisely doesn't mess with an accent; instead she tends to pound words, usually at the ends of sentences, the way a butcher might hammer a slab of beef. Among the men, Robert A. Mitchell has of late gotten into the rut of playing roles at the top of his voice. So it is again here. Someone might want to suggest to Mitchell that there are other ways to act besides loud.

The motif of mothers and daughters that sustains Pride's Crossing extends to the production. Madeleine Steinau, the director's daughter who appears to be about twelve, delivers — if not the most polished — perhaps the truest performance of the night. As Mabel's visiting great-granddaughter Julia, she is ingenuously charming; at the same time Julia seems to be occasionally bored by the company of all these octogenarians. That pretty much sums up the evening as a whole.