There is something special happening in Pinckney, Michigan. In a downtown storefront, The Dio – Dining and Entertainment is steadily providing night after night of polished professional theatrical performance accompanied by exceptional dinner service, lovely ambiance, and a heartwarming sense of community.
The company’s latest production is The Bridges of Madison County, the 2014 Tony Award-winning musical by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Honeymoon in Vegas, Parade) and Marsha Norman (‘night Mother, The Secret Garden, The Color Purple). This was our first foray to The Dio, and we will definitely be returning for future shows. Yes (in the spirit of transparency), we were there to support beloved theatre pals, but, with all the objectivity I can muster, The Dio’s Bridges is a music box marvel not to be missed. (We also absolutely adored the new friends we made: Kurt and Becky, our dinner companions at Table 4!)
I’ve not read the source novel by Robert James Waller (the three-hankie, tear-jerking book club mania that surrounded its release gave me the heebie jeebies … and I blame its runaway success for inflicting Nicholas Sparks upon modern literary best seller lists), and the film bored me silly with Meryl Streep doing her darndest to channel Anna Magnani up against the splintery balsa wood that is Clint Eastwood. The story, for those unfamiliar, details the whirlwind weekend affair between (wait for it) a National Geographic photographer visiting a small Iowa town to photograph covered bridges and an Italian woman trapped in a pleasant but unremarkable marriage to a farmer who has left her alone for the weekend as he heads off with their two children to attend a state fair in Indianapolis (which isn’t in Iowa). Whew.
Blessedly, Brown and Norman take the Harlequin Romance conceit of the source material and turn it on its head, crafting from its simplistic superstructure a sour/sweet souffle of American rural provincialism, xenophobia, and sexism. Bridges in their hands becomes allegorical operetta (a la The Most Happy Fella), a tragedy of missed opportunities and of failing to stoke the fiery spark of individuality in our dearest loved ones.
Directed with poignant nuance, arch wit, and clinical precision by Steve DeBruyne, The Dio’s cast rises to the challenge. Leads Marlene Inman and Jon McHatton as Francesca and Robert respectively, yes, capture the heady chemistry of sweeping escapist romance that audiences will desire, but they also layer in sparkling moments of humor and humanity and tragic loss that offer the narrative heartbreaking heft. Their vocals are breathtaking, simultaneously soaring and intimate – “Wondering” and “Falling Into You” being particular highlights. Inman gives a beautifully calibrated portrayal of an Italian woman whose intense creativity is hauntingly at odds with the workaday charms of farm/family life in mid-60s Iowa. McHatton is a gleaming presence throughout, a bolt of free-thinking masculine Id in stark relief against a conservative landscape. McHatton brings a welcome humility and forlorn longing to a role that in less capable hands could devolve into swaggering machismo.
The rest of the ensemble is a well-oiled machine, doing yeoman’s work in multiple roles and seamlessly shifting, moving, and reassembling the various components of Matthew Tomich’s ingenious cube-based set design from farmhouse kitchen to bustling Main Street to cathedral to, yes, covered bridge. Tomich uses projections and additional lighting techniques to bring a dreamlike wonder to the proceedings, using The Dio’s limited space to maximum effect. I could have watched those set changes all day. You never hear an audience member say that.
Carrie Jay Sayer as Gladys Kravitz-esque nosy neighbor Marge and Dan Morrison as her husband Charlie wring every bit of funny out of their broad character roles, sidestepping outright mugging and infusing a refreshing sense of empathy. I also must call out Madison Merlanti as Robert’s ex-wife Marian; her delivery of the hypnotic ode to what-might-have-been “Another Life” is a showstopper.
At one point Francesca explains to Robert that, while the houses in her small Iowa farm community may look desolate, they are quite a flurry of frantic inner life, that the people in them are “either working … or looking out their windows,” perhaps sitting in judgment of their neighbors or envious of the world that may be passing them by. The Dio’s production of The Bridges of Madison County (running two more weekends through May 21) takes us lovingly, critically inside those homes, reminding us that tragedies of the heart – small and large – happen in every living room, every day.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.