By Daniel Skora
It was first a bestselling novel by Robert James Waller that sold a phenomenal 50 million copies worldwide. A critically acclaimed film followed, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, who took home an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the movie. In 2014 it premiered on Broadway as a musical and received four Tony nominations, winning in the Best Score and Best Orchestration categories. “The Bridges of Madison County” is now having its Michigan Premiere on the stage of Pinckney’s Dio Theatre in a wonderfully realized production that’s among the best the Dio has ever done.
“Bridges” is a heartrending story of unexpected love showing up on the doorstep of a middle-aged woman whose marriage has become apathetic. Francesca is a war bride brought to America from Italy by her husband Bud (Andrew Gorney). For Francesca, home in the year 1965 is the farmlands of Iowa. Francesca has settled into an existence that while not totally humdrum, is lacking those little touches of romance and attention that make a woman feel appreciated. Her husband is preoccupied with the farm and insensitive to the needs of his wife. Her two children, Michael (James Fischer) and Carolyn (Julianne Roberts) are in the midst of those contentious years that are common between teenaged siblings.
Shortly after Bud and the children have left for several days to show their prize steer at the State Fair, a man arrives at the door. Robert is a photographer on assignment from National Geographic to shoot pictures of the county’s historic bridges. He’s been unable to locate one of them and is looking for directions. Robert will prove to be everything that’s been missing from Francesca’s life. Cordial, manly, and appreciative of the hospitality he’s being shown, there’s an almost immediate electricity between the two. It’s not long before their attraction gets serious and they find themselves expressing their desire for each other in a physical way.
Though it’s Robert who sets the plot in motion, it’s Francesca who owns the world of the story. She’s a good and decent person, and if she hasn’t exactly been longsuffering in her marriage, there’s certainly been an emotional vacuum that her husband has been unable to fill. Director Steve DeBruyne couldn’t have selected better than having cast Marlene Inman in the role. Inman has the look, the appeal, and the sensibilities of a woman of quiet strength and immeasurable feminine allure. Inman’s resume lists a stint with the Opera Chorus at the Michigan Opera Theatre, and in a show that’s accompanied by a score filled with exquisite beauty, Inman’s voice would make the Iowa corn grow more golden. In the traditional acknowledgement of a superlative performance, Marlene Inman is Francesca.
DeBruyne has gone to the New York acting community to find a Robert with the voice and the stature to insure an equal partner for Francesca. Jon McHatton, who has National Tour and regional credits, fills the bill perfectly.
The fine supporting cast includes Carrie Jay Sayer as Marge and Dan Morrison as Charlie, neighbors whose back-and-forth about whether the pickup truck from out-of-town parked nearby overnight is any of their business provides comic interludes to the otherwise dramatic proceedings. Molly Cunningham is part of the ensemble and contributes a song as a singer at the State Fair. Others in the ensemble playing supporting roles include Madison Merlanti, Anne Bauman, Derek Ridge, Luciana Piazza, Steve DeBruyne, and Jared Schneider.
The set, by Matt Tomich, who also did lighting and sound design, alternates for the most part between the detailed kitchen of Francesca’s home and projected images of the Iowa landscape. Music direction is by Brian E. Buckner. Costuming is by Norma Polk, with props by Eileen Obradovich. The delicious buffet, which is part of the Dio’s Dining and Entertainment experience, is prepared by Chef Jarod. Book for the original Broadway production is by Marsha Norman with music by Jason Robert Brown.
If the question raised by “The Bridges of Madison County” is whether or not memories are enough to sustain us, the answer it gives is a bittersweet “Yes”. Romantic and heartwarming, with a soaringly melodic score, Inman’s affecting performance, and the Dio’s rousing production, “Bridges” is a show you won’t want to miss.
“The Bridges of Madison County” runs through May 21st. For tickets and information call the Dio at 1.517.672.6009 or go online at www.diotheatre.com. The Dio – Dining and Entertainment is located at 177 E. Main Street in downtown Pinckney.