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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
There are so many reasons we don't see a farmhouse in The Bridges of Madison County, or at least not a farmhouse with walls and a second floor. The set and props for this new Broadway musical are more lyrical than that, suggesting the contours of a world rather than explicitly defining them.
And that's not by accident. The designers' approach arguably reveals the heart of the show itself.
For instance, the story is framed as the lovelorn memory of Francesca (Kelli O'Hara), an Iowa farmwife who has a passionate extramarital affair with Robert (Steven Pasquale), a photographer for National Geographic. Adapting the blockbuster novel, composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and book writer Marsha Norman evoke a romance that's both fervent and fragile, as irresistible to the lovers as it is doomed to fail them.
"If we had a built a two-story house, it would have been overwhelming to this delicate piece," says set designer Michael Yeargan. "The music has a dream-like quality, and you just couldn't have that with something big and imposing and fixed."
Plus, as Francesca remembers how life led her to Robert, the story travels to many places, including Italy, where she met the soldier who brought her to the Midwest. "The more we tried to show those places specifically, the more it weighed the show down," says Yeargan, who also designed the production's run at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. "It didn't feel fluid, which is what we needed. So we came up with these iconic images---the gables of the house, a window, a tree---and used them to create a world that could accommodate lots of places."
Similarly, props designer Kathy Fabian features objects that are essential to Francesca's journey. "In this case, less is more because we don't want to clutter the story" she says. "Their love and the music are both so big that we don't want to fill the stage with a bunch of stuff."
So when Francesca's in her kitchen, then, a few items---fresh basil, small juice glasses with pictures of oranges on them---suggest an entire environment. "It's almost like the objects are coming to her when she needs them for her memories," says Fabian. "It's a love story, and I'm sure we all have memories of those first moments with this person who changed our lives. A candle burning in your midst was so heightened. The taste of the salt in the stew or the drink you drank that evening. Those are things you really remember, and so for her, it's those tiny things that she touches."
But for all its emotional heft and dream-like movement, The Bridges of Madison County is also set in a specific time and place. It matters that the story is happening in Iowa in the 1960s, where Francesca's neighbors will almost certainly disapprove of her affair.
That's why there are often ensemble members on the sides of the stage, watching even the most private scenes unfold. "They're constantly present," says Yeargan. "This whole event happens under the surveillance of this town."
To that end, the design team has worked had to make sure everything we see has an authentic period feel. The affair might not seem as charged if we couldn't tell exactly where those watchful neighbors were living. Fabian has therefore spent long hours browsing antique shops and eBay to find just the right suitcase or coffee pot. (The home décor site One Kings Lane has also provided several items.)
"Having these authentic pieces helps tell the story," she says, adding that actors benefit as much as audiences. "A lot of times, they really want things to feel like they're supposed to feel. If they feel the heaviness of the hay bale or the object they're carrying, it helps them be in the moment."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus