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Review: CTP's 'Bridges' dives deep

“The Bridges of Madison County” is a lush, emotionally extravagant musical filled with tension between loyalty and longing, between the unrelenting monotony of daily life and the rush of excitement that newness brings.

Directed and choreographed by Daniel S. Stephens, the show opened last weekend at the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford.

A beautiful Italian woman marries an American GI and goes to live on his small-town Iowa farm. She cooks and cleans, he works the land and they have children. There is a sameness to their lives, a dissatisfaction that foretells Francesca’s four days of forbidden love. Those days are an interlude that threatens everything Francesca holds dear and promises everything she desires.

Robert James Waller’s novel “The Bridges of Madison County” sold more than 60 million copies worldwide when it was published in 1992, and most everyone knows the story of the lonely Italian farm wife and the handsome, hippie traveling photographer. What’s so appealing about the Collaborative Theatre Project production is the music and voice that bring out dimensions of love and longing that are not possible in other media.

Lauren Blair as war bride Francesca and Alex Boyles as photographer Robert Kincaid have extraordinary vocal talents that accentuate desire and heighten the emotional impact of a simple romantic tale. Their use of gesture, their physical joining is natural, lyrical and sensuous. Blair and Boyles elevate what is otherwise a dreamy tale of forbidden love to a beautiful performance that sets desire and loyalty at odds.

As Francesca, Blair is beautifully controlled and elegant, her voice modulated with just a hint of an Italian accent. Francesca’s everyday clothes are chic and stylish, her way of making coffee is foreign, as is her use of basil in a simple stew. Her husband is Bud Johnson, played by Justin Waggle, a hardworking Midwestern man who is not given to sharing his thoughts or caring too openly. He angers quickly and loves Francesca but cannot possibly understand how lonely she is so far from Naples, from home. In “Something From a Dream,” Bud expresses his amazement at winning Francesca’s hand.

Small-town living brings closeness and community, support and sometimes rescue. That’s the upside. The down side is that everybody knows your business and tells all to anyone who will listen. That small Iowa town in Madison County rallies around a failing farmer in “You’re Never Alone” to save the farm, and Francesca’s next-door neighbor Marge, played by Renee Hewitt, watches Fran’s every action with binoculars and phones frequently.

Hewitt, and Sean Warren as Charlie, are marvelous as an Iowa couple who see life clearly, and reveal the truths of small-town living. They embody the best of friendship, trust and goodwill.

The CTP set for “The Bridges of Madison County” is crowded with the objects and structures of a typical farmstead, and the action is played out using every square horizontal and vertical inch of the stage. The ensemble — neighbors, kids, shopkeepers — shift props and change scenes openly as part of the production, a clever signal that in a small town, privacy is rare and every action is public.

Lighting, managed by Mike Kunkel, is superb. Kunkel follows the narrative with a narrow spotlight to reflect isolation and privacy, floodlights to open the set to others, and carefully filtered sunlight to give focus to a photographer’s observation. There is no hesitation, no error in Kunkel’s work.

Life and death, too, are part of the story. Life, filled with possibility, is expressed by Blair and Boyles in “Wondering,” and loss in their “Before and After You.” Loss is felt too as people pass, and as Warren and Waggle join in a bluesy “When I’m Gone.”

The final scenes of the play are heartbreaking as Francesca is surrounded by family and friends as the ensemble sings “Francesca Alone.” Robert, though, isolated and also alone, is packing up his few belongings as he sings, “It All Fades Away.”

Francesca and Robert made their choices and lived their lives but never forgot that interlude of freedom and ecstasy. And so Lauren Blair and Alex Boyles share the stage in the final moments of “The Bridges of Madison County,” when they return to that covered bridge and recall their long ago love with “Always Better.”

“The Bridges of Madison County” continues at CTP through May 12. It runs about 2 hours, 20 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Adult themes are presented, appropriate for mature audiences. For more information and tickets, see CTPMedford.org or call the box office at 541-779-1055.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

Lauren Blair as war bride Francesca and Alex Boyles as photographer Robert Kincaid star in Collaborative Theatre Project's "The Bridges of Madison County." Submitted photo