Saturday, June 23, 2007

A "Bridge" to Cherish

Early in the performance of Austin’s Bridge, now enjoying a wonderful World Premiere with Firehouse Theatre Project, the character of Austin Quinn sings that his actions are about to finally set him free. Watching the musical play that follows, I kept thinking that author Bill C. Davis was also experiencing a sort of freedom.

Much of the action of Austin’s Bridge is set in a residential community for mentally and developmentally disabled adults in Upstate New York. For four summers, I lived and worked at a similar residential facility, Camp Baker in Chesterfield County, and for one full year thereafter I was employed at the Development Training Center in Richmond.

I remember as if it were yesterday how strange the residents of those facilities seemed to me at first. I felt like 95% of their physical, psychological and emotional traits were different from mine. By the end of that first summer, I realized that the opposite was true. In 95% of the ways in which we thought and felt and acted, we were exactly the same.

Except they had one major strength that I lacked. Freedom. I was living my life behind a wall of self-consciousness, social mores, artifice and subtext. I regret that I still do. The residents seemed to me to be completely free of these obstacles. They said exactly what they felt, they asked for exactly what they wanted and needed, their emotional lives were rich and layered and unencumbered by a desperate need to appear to be “normal.”

Lacking this freedom, I began to feel like I was the one who was disabled.

Very early in his career, Bill Davis (pictured to the left) wrote a super-hit—Mass Appeal, which has been internationally successful both on stage and screen. Mass Appeal is a beautiful play. We produced it years ago at Theatre IV with an African American cast.

I’m sure that writing a super-hit can provide traps just as easily as it can provide freedom. I’m so glad that, at least at this stage in his career, Bill Davis seems to have chosen to be free.

Austin’s Bridge is not like most contemporary plays. It wears its heart on its sleeve. It is honest and gentle and sweet in a way that reminded me of The Fantasticks, except it is of course completely different. Like the residents it portrays, it makes no attempts at artifice or subtext. It’s all about freedom and feeling and shucking off the need to hide. To be honest, it took me a while to get used to its simplicity and sweetness. But ultimately, I found myself caught up in its spell, in a very similar way to the manner in which I remember becoming enthralled by the unencumbered emotions of the Camp Baker residents.

Depending on what kind of person you are, Austin’s Bridge may seem beautiful or sappy, baldly honest or sentimentally manipulative. I’m sure that Bill Davis knows this, and he has written freely the play that shows the inner-workings of his heart. He openly shares emotions with us, writing honestly with the courage of his convictions.

Chalk me up among those who found his work to be beautiful and honest. When one central couple explains, in two or three words, the absolute necessity of marriage, my heart leapt into my throat.

And let me express my admiration for the wonderful cast, who entered into their roles with body, mind and soul. Not to mention the fact that they sing their hearts out. You guys knocked me out.

By all means, go see Austin’s Bridge. However you respond, you will surely be impressed by the fact that this World Premiere is happening right here in River City. And just like Bill Davis, his startlingly gifted composer Brett Boles, and the multi-talented cast, the Firehouse itself is going for it with everything its got.

I’m jealous of theatrical intentions and exercises and institutions that are so pure, and simple, and free. I wish this run, and whatever runs may follow, all the success in the world.

--Bruce Miller


Sara Marsden said...

Catherine Dudley and I saw Austin's Bridge last Friday night and we really enjoyed it. The vocal talents were amazing. The four leads were especially impressive. Barksdale's own Billy Christoper Maupin was beautifully convincing as Ronald and clearly took ownership of the character. I look forward to seeing him on stage again soon, he really does have great presence. Robin Harris was warm and charming. Angie Shipley was wonderful. And Jeremy has quite a career ahead of him. The show may not be perfect, but these performance definitely make it worth seeing.

Anonymous said...

I too was incredibly impressed with the script, music and casting of this unique play. With an austere set design, you must focus completely on the story and the incredible talent each actor possesses. The commitment of the actors to their roles, without parody, particularly impressed me. The actors stayed in character, even when moving the pieces on the set. This was my first time at this venue and I was impressed with its uniqueness as well. I look forward to more performances at "The Firehouse," and hearing great things about this set of actors in the future. Bravo!