A pretty young woman dons a robe and slippers and takes to a walker, aging within moments from a vibrant youth to an elderly and ill woman.
Celia Gannon's uncanny transformation, in the first minutes of Pride's Crossing, gives authenticity to her characterization of Mabel Tidings — child, teenager, young woman, nonagenarian — as she travels back and forth through the stages of her life.
The inspiration for playwright Tina Howe's 1997 play, onstage at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, is said to be twofold: Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, in 1926, and Howe's elderly aunt, who led a sheltered and confined life within an upper-crust New England family. Howe has said she wanted "to give voice to the women of my mother's place and generation who grew up in turn-of-the-century, privileged New England households, who really never had the chance to flower and assess themselves and find out who they were."
Directed here by Karen Paisley, this work also seems drawn from the life of the writer, who fought the rules that an elite upbringing imposed. Howe explores the constraints that women, including herself, have faced when their talents or ambitions drove them to aspire beyond the boundaries defined for them by family and community.
Proper women of the early 20th century apparently weren't supposed to swim. Mabel's mother (Shelley Wyche) tries to forbid it, but Mabel, surrounded by athletic and adventurous men — an Olympic-diving brother, Phineas (Jordan Fox); a yachtsman father, Gus (Matt Leonard) — finds freedom in the water.
That energy and nerve still reside deep inside Mabel in a feisty old age, emerging in moments of humor and reminiscence and also in frustration and anger. She sometimes lashes out at those long devoted to her: lifelong friend Chandler Coffin (Alan Tilson), with whom she trained as a young swimmer; granddaughter Julia Renoir (Wyche, in a second role), whom she raised; housekeeper Vita Bright (Devon Barnes), who keeps watch. Her words are sometimes cruel — "old lady rage," Howe calls it — a life's unhappiness brimming up like lava.
Why her remaining family and friends stay true to the self-absorbed Mabel isn't always clear, except that they know — and love — the person she was, still is, an inner self now mostly dormant. But as the story changes channels from present to past and back again, we see moments that expose Mabel's verve, drive and longing.
Gannon is excellent as multifaceted Mabel, changing her voice and her posture, and physically growing feeble as the story's shifting timeline demands. We feel elderly Mabel's effort just trying to make a phone call. Tilson brings pride and pathos to his clubfooted Chandler, and he's genuine as her family's Irish cook, Mary O'Neill. Leonard is variously aloof, dashing, abusive and charming as Mabel's father; as Russian symphony conductor Anton Gurevitch; as Mabel's husband, Porter Bigelow; and as fellow nonagenarian Wheels Wheelock. Adept as Phineas, Fox is vigorous, buoyant and passionate as suitor and fellow swimmer David Bloom, the no-no Jew in Mabel's blueblood life who also assists in her record-breaking achievement. (His casting as Mary O'Neill's daughter, Pru, is less fitting.)
In Act 2's culminating July Fourth croquet game — an annual get-together that Mabel is determined to re-enact — supporting cast members are believably aged. I grew tired just watching their effort at changing clothes (costume design by Shannon Smith Regnier), walking a few steps, staying awake. Coleman Crenshaw, perfect in an elderly matron's mannerisms and speech, is a long way from the troubled young men he also portrays.
It can be hard keeping track of every character, and some of them seem insignificant. That's a script issue. Howe lets secondary characters — Mabel's brother Frazier, Vita's son, West — distract from the story more than serve it, and some components just don't fit together. Mabel's teenage great-granddaughter, Minty (Erika Lynette Baker), however, pulls pieces of Mabel's life from boxes and draws Mabel out as well, as we come to know a woman determined and disciplined enough to train and to jump into a cold English Channel, to swim for hours to the coast of France, yet is afraid, in her world of Boston Brahmins, to not conform in love.
This duality — triumph alongside poor personal choices — is Mabel's primary contradiction. That we come to know the full arc of her life makes this depiction of her will and spirit ultimately bittersweet.