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Looking Backward: Mabel (Maureen Silliman) looks back over her life in 'Pride's Crossing.'

Mabel's Memories

TheatreWorks lets intentions outstrip results in 'Pride's Crossing'

By Heather Zimmerman

UNTIL THE DAY she died, my elderly great aunt chopped wood and easily out-hiked people half her age on the trails near the rural cabin where she lived. But there was never a day in her life when she didn't wear a dress; pants were "not ladylike," she said. "You never know when someone might drop by for a visit."

Such a paradoxical mix of chutzpah and feminine mores is the focus of Tina Howe's Pride's Crossing, a 90-year-old woman's reminiscences on her full and often difficult life. Howe wrote the play as a tribute to her aunt, and the play functions well as a tribute to all that today's generation of elderly women have lived through, but Pride's Crossing falters considerably when it tries to make one dysfunctional moneyed family the symbol of social oppression. TheatreWorks offers the West Coast premiere of Howe's well-intentioned but flawed play.

In the present day, Mabel Tidings Bigelow (Maureen Silliman) is a feisty 90-year-old in failing health. Encamped in the chauffeur's cottage on her family's estate in Massachusetts, Mabel doesn't have the financial means she once did, but that doesn't stop her from trying to organize a croquet party to celebrate a visit from her granddaughter Julia (Cynthia Bassham). As she plans her party, various events spark Mabel's memories, which we see in flashbacks, from childhood to a scene from her own unhappy marriage.

Understandably, Mabel's favorite memory is from her vibrant young-adult years: her record-setting swim across the English Channel in the late 1920s. That one magnificent accomplishment, though it colored Mabel's life, did not change it--sadly and inexplicably, we learn, it marked the apex of her happiness and freedom.

Although some unidentifiable accents (British? Irish? Continental?) show that more time could have been spent with a dialect coach, director Amy Glazer has mined the cast for some strong performances. The players handle demanding multiple roles adeptly. In particular, Mark Phillips makes a role in drag far less jokey than it might seem as a maternal Irish cook. Silliman proves herself up to the challenge of portraying Mabel throughout her lifetime.

These performances are all the more impressive given that Howe never meaningfully fleshes out the important points in Mabel's life that the script raises time and again: a bad marriage and a possible unrequited love.

We never get a sense until the very end that Mabel was really torn over her decision of whom to marry. She talks often of missing her late husband, Porter Bigelow, but his one appearance is as a drunken abuser. She claims that she married Bigelow to please her family, yet in flashbacks, her parents repeatedly denounce him as an incurable lush. And there are hints that Mabel's rejection of David Bloom, the man she wanted to marry, stemmed from anti-Semitism, but the play doesn't seem to "have the courage" to actually admit it.

The implication is that in the end, Mabel was steamrolled by the social mores of the time. A handful of too-deliberate chidings by her mother about a woman's "proper place" being in the home seem to have shaped Mabel's attitude toward life, but that's really the only taste we get of the implied restrictiveness of Mabel's family, and it's not especially convincing, partly because Mabel's mother, a distracted socialite, sounds a bit disingenuous spouting such platitudes.

Howe seldom reveals Mabel's struggles, only the unhappy outcomes. It's as if, much like at the beginning of this century, such things are still not discussed in polite company. And just as bad, the character of Julia seems to exist merely as proof that wealthy, unhappy marriages never go out of vogue.

Mabel's mother is fond of reiterating a French phrase to the effect of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," and although it's important to recognize that even now, women still have a long way to go, the resignation of Pride's Crossing to things staying the same isn't something of which women like Mabel--and my great aunt--would approve.

'Pride's Crossing' plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2 and/or 7pm at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View, through Sept. 19. Tickets are $20-$37. (650/903-6000)

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From the September 2-8, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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