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Not So Swimmingly

Pride's Crossing: of time and the Channel.

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No matter how strong a person is mentally and physically when they are young, old age will eventually rob them of their vitality. Or so Theatre Memphis' latest reminds us.

Pride's Crossing is based on the story of Mabel Tidings Bigelow, who at the age of 26 was not only the first woman to swim the English Channel from England to France but also set the world record for doing so.

When the play opens, Mabel is 90 and virtually alone. She can't walk, she can't see, she can't hear. She lives in the converted stable of her parents' old house with her housekeeper and the housekeeper's son and is busy planning a party for the only one of her grandchildren who still visits her.

Time ebbs and flows from the present to memories of Mabel's childhood in 1920s Boston, her teenage years, her marriage, and her famous swim. Leigh Ann Evans plays Mabel at all stages of her life and does each convincingly but is most talented as the arthritic curmudgeon.

Costume changes done on stage between scenes further revealed the talent of the actress. Evans sheds the years away easily by shucking off her bathrobe to reveal other costumes underneath.

Another stand-out is Jeff Bailey. His portrayal of Mabel's club-footed, would-be suitor is humorous yet sympathetic, and as her true love and swim coach, he projects just the right amount of compassion and sensuality. Many of the members of the multitalented cast play more than one role and do so with aplomb.

But the entire production seems to struggle with obvious inadequacies in the script. Written by Tina Howe, whose previous work has twice been nominated for Tony Awards, Pride's Crossing plods along with clichés and limp language. Characters repeatedly answer questions with "I don't want to talk about it," deferring necessary plot exposition to flashbacks and slowing the pace of the piece.

In addition, Howe's story is confusing in several places. Several lifelong friends suddenly appear in the last few scenes of the play, overturning the audience's perception of Mabel's character. Their Mabel is one the audience has never seen before.

In another scene, Mabel confronts her mother with the fact that the hours she spent swimming in the ocean were only so her mother would notice her. But if all she really wanted was her mother's approval, why did she bother swimming at all? Her mother made perfectly clear the behavior she expected of a lady. In fact, it was her father who put the idea of swimming the Channel into her head. During a discussion of sailing he says that anyone can swim, even the dog. A real swim, he says, is the English Channel. It would seem Mabel swam the Channel for him, if anyone.

Well-known for dealing with issues of social class and human relationships, Howe had the perfect subject matter to make a statement about a liberated woman in an unliberated time. But instead, the play treads on dangerous ground by portraying a woman who must have been determined and liberated -- she swam for hours a day leading up to her swim of the English Channel in 1928 -- as weak and cowardly.

In the first scene, Mabel and her housekeeper have a discussion where they agree that men have all the fun. Later Mabel says, "If I had skin like yours, just think what I could have accomplished," invalidating herself.

Instead, Mabel's swimming of the English Channel is used more as a frame for the question of what kind of man a woman should marry. The play does not seek to ask whether a woman's accomplishments can be enough to satisfy her or enough to let her stand on her own two feet --in Howe's play, they obviously cannot. Mabel's friends and family (and the audience dragged along with them) are more interested in her love life and how she chose her husband.

In the end, though, two women are left as foils for each other. One ran away with the man who stole her heart; the other did not, seemingly because her man was Jewish. The kicker is both women are miserable with their lives. The moral? Don't get old.

Through June 3rd at Theatre Memphis.

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