Bridges of Madison County stirs the soul

I didn't know what to expect when I attended a tech rehearsal of Springfield Theatre Centre's The Bridges of Madison County last week. I had seen the movie and remember finding it heartbreaking while loving the direction and the acting (it's Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, so...). And knowing how the first night of tech can go, I was prepared to see something a little rough around the edges. While it is an imperfect show, I was very impressed with the production and moved by what I experienced.

The story focuses on 1965 Iowa, on a hot summer day when Italian war bride Francesca Johnson (Sara Goeckner) finds herself alone for a few days as her husband Bud (Michael Clair) and their children, Carolyn and Michael (Sofia Flick and Jackson Thornton), head to Indianapolis to show their prize steer. Shortly after they leave, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Jeremy Goeckner) appears. He's in town photographing covered bridges and seeks directions to the last one on his list. There is a connection that is soon apparent between the two and they engage in a brief but meaningful affair.

click to enlarge Bridges of Madison County stirs the soul
PHOTO BY KARI BEDFORD PHOTOGRAPY
Sara Goeckner plays Francesca Johnson, a woman struggling between fulfilling the duties of a wife and mother and pursuing love.

The show opens with sweeping imagery of landscapes near and far, past and present – billowing oceans and fields, from the place where Francesca came from to where she landed. She sings in lyrical, operatic tones, telling the story of her life so far, from departing Napoli as a nervous young bride, arriving in New York, then traversing the country to build a home with her husband on a farm in Winterset, Iowa. Francesca sings with pride about the life she's built but also with some latent longing for the world she left behind. Meeting a stranger who reminds her of her past and stirs emotions within her she had long since packed away becomes too powerful for either one to resist.

Written by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and based on the novel by Robert James Waller, the show's strength rests primarily on the musical score and those who perform it. While I didn't walk away humming any tunes, I was repeatedly blown away by the strength of the vocals and the warm, sumptuous compositions. The talented musicians comprising the orchestra, led by Blake Martin, play dreamy song after folksy tune. I heard from several in the band that they could not say no to playing this music. I can understand why; it's quite gorgeous. Sung by the Goeckners, and the rest of the cast who were expertly guided by vocal director Chirssy Mauck, the music and spirit of the piece is elevated to extensive heights.  

There's also a wider story and script which was more like a long Midwestern road trip. It has its moments, although overall, it's a little flat and kind of corny. But like that road trip, once we reach our destination, we're grateful for the journey – the destination here being Francesca's resolution and the journey, the music.

Real-life husband and wife Jeremy and Sara Goeckner play Robert and Francesca (described by the actors as "a dream come true") and their passionate, aching performances are heartfelt and authentic. Sara as Francesca embodies the content woman at first resigned to a life of simplicity, then the conflicted woman whose soul has been set afire. You can feel her anguish as she walks an emotional tightrope between pursuing love and remaining the dutiful wife and mother.

Everyone else in the show performs ably – hat tip to LaDonna Wilson whose nosy, well-intentioned neighbor, Marge, brings some comic relief to the story – but their characters and storylines (for me, as written) seemed perfunctory. It very well could have been a successful two-person show.

Kudos to the directing team, John and Nicole Sivak (also married in real life), for staging a memorable production. I wondered what directing this show together meant to them. I found the answer in their director's statement:

"If you ask anyone who is familiar with this show what makes it so special, it is the music. The storytelling through song and the beautiful lyrics and orchestration drives the story and touches the heart. However, having a character like Francesca, a woman with so many layers who has lived life and raised her children and is embracing the possibility of change, is a story that is important to be told. Telling this story together has been an experience like none other."

The show continues May 17-18 at 7:30 p.m. and May 19 at 2 p.m. in the LRS theater of the Hoogland Center for the Arts. For tickets, visit https://www.hcfta.org/tickets.

Mary Young

Mary Young was born and raised in Springfield and has been performing in, producing and directing live theater for decades. She's done film and voice-over work, performs occasionally with local bands and takes part in improv troupe The Portuguese Rodeo Clown Company.

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