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The Barter Blog

"The Bridges of Madison County" Explores the Depths Review by Bonny Gable

September 13, 2018

Barter Theatre’s new musical offering The Bridges of Madison County is a bittersweet story that plumbs the depths — the depth of love, of passion, but most of all the depth of commitment. It explores the dilemma of human struggle when an irresistible force presents itself: the chance to recapture something lost. If that chance is taken, what are the consequences? A lonely housewife and a loner photographer — both drifting through life, creating beauty as best they can — are offered the opportunity to find out.

With both her Italian homeland and her fiancé destroyed by World War II, a desperate Francesca had latched on to the only lifeboat she found: an American soldier, Bud, who took her to a new home on a farm in Iowa. Twenty years and two children later she finds that making this home still does not quell her loneliness. One day an equally lonely photographer, Robert, approaches her farmhouse in search of a covered bridge. With the family away at the state fair, Francesca and Robert unexpectedly enter into a discovery of feelings they both thought long lost to them Though passions bloom and temptation is overwhelming, both make heartbreaking choices for the good of all those they love.

Based on the novel by Robert James Waller, the brilliant talents of playwright Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown formed the winning team that created this gem of a musical play. Brown has lent a surprisingly contemporary sound to this period piece that absolutely fits as if no other sound would do. Beautiful original melodies support Norman’s lyrics, and songs weave effortlessly with the dialogue to produce a seamless and compelling storytelling experience.

With intelligence and grace Director Tricia Matthews has crafted a lovely telling of this story. Matthews handles the actors like an expert horse rider – gently guiding the reins but knowing when to give them their head. And while this is Francesca and Robert’s story it is fascinating to watch the entire cast working beautifully in ensemble throughout the show. Music Director Dishon Smith single-handedly accompanies the singing, creating a lush orchestra of sound. With his skillful guidance each singer achieves the precise sounds needed to tell this story, and choral singing by the ensemble has a flawless blend.

Hannah Ingram as the sweet, gentle but tortured soul that is Francesca is Hannah Ingram at her best yet. Her wonderfully nuanced portrayal and glorious singing will melt your heart, and her excellent Italian accent gives a distinct flavor to the character without ever causing intrusion. Sean Maximo Campos gives a stellar performance as Robert, the sensitive “hippie” photographer who drifts into Francesca’s life. His baritone voice – just like his character — is strong and virile as he delivers his songs with appropriate passion.

Nick Koesters does an excellent turn as Francesca’s husband Bud. I am always amazed at this actor’s vast rage. He’s played some nasty and outrageous characters with brazen flair, and here he is portraying this average but solid Midwest farmer with unassuming dignity. Hope Quinn as daughter Carolyn, and Zacchaeus Kimbrell as son Michael make a delightful and realistic brother-sister team, complete with squabbles and competition yet always devoted to family.

Paris Bradstreet and Rick McVey are marvelous as nosy neighbors Marge and Charlie, who temper the serious love story with moments of humor. They are also philosophers of a sort, inviting us to contemplate the choices people make and what might justify them. Sarah Laughland is alluring as Francesca’s sister Chiara, but also does a bang-up job as a state fair country singer. Kim Morgan Dean is delightful as the whimsical Marian, Robert’s ex-wife and aspiring folk singer.

Set Designer Derek Smith has framed the stage with hints of Victorian farmhouse and a covered bridge in muted but warm shades of yellow and red. Above that a backdrop of a cloudy sunset against the dark horizon leads us to imagine what might lie beyond it. A framed screen hangs at center stage for slide projections that guide us through the story. In this way we “see the world through a small, small window” just like a photographer. Camille Davis’s lighting employs subtle tones that complement the setting, creating suitable moods or highlighting action where most appropriate. Designer Jane Alois Stein’s costumes are totally in tune with 1960s simple farm existence as well as 1940s Italy. The modest styles and gentle colors complement the setting and lighting for a unified visual effect.

As Robert tells us, “Wait for the light; it can change the way you see the world.” This story is a reminder that in the midst of life’s journey and struggle to survive, unexpected moments of beauty can surprise us. One such moment is Barter’s captivating performance of this poignant story of love, passion and sacrifice.

The Bridges of Madison County runs at Barter Theatre through November 11. For tickets and information contact 276-628-3991 or