A ‘Bridge’ of souls on Bridge Avenue, at Two River premiere

Actor-playwright David Greenspan (fourth from left) tops the cast in his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, on stage now at Two River Theater.  (Photos by T. CHARLES ERICKSON)

(Published in the Asbury Park Press on March 2, 2018)

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,” wrote Thornton Wilder at the end of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” the 1927 novel now on stage in a world premiere theatrical version at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, “…and the bridge is love.”

Those who’ve come to love Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning piece of work may find this “Bridge” to be an altogether different structure. But while it takes some ever-wilder liberties with the sometimes somber source material — a meditation on mortality and the seeming randomness of the Creator’s will, set in the aftermath of a rope-bridge collapse that kills five people — the dramatization by serial Obie Award winner David Greenspan manages to preserve the beating heart of the author’s core themes, even while losing the one presence who pretty much tied it all together.

Presented without intermission inside the Marion Huber space at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, Greenspan’s commissioned work finds the dynamic actor-playwright-director working once more with a company of fellow players, having recently wrapped a Guinness-level gig during which he performed a six-hour solo take on Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth “Strange Interlude.” He and the other eight members of the cast collaborate here under the direction of Two River returnee Ken Rus Schmoll, whose 2017 production “The Women of Padilla” served as satisfying prelude to this time-hopping tale centered around an 18th century Peruvian village.

Elizabeth Ramos (center, with Bradley James Tejeda and Zachary Infante) is the famous Camila Perichole in the Two River Theater adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, on stage now in Red Bank.

Not so long ago and far away as it sounds, that setting is populated by a collection of characters who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the American landscapes of such Wilder stage classics as “The Matchmaker” and “Our Town.” The procession of variously lost, lonely, scarred and self-deluded souls includes the celebrated but frustrated actress Camila Perichole (“Padilla” veteran Elizabeth Ramos), whose complicated relationship with her craft extends to her longtime valet, mentor and confidante Uncle Pio (Greenspan). There’s the aging Marquesa Doña Maria (Mary Lou Rosato) who’s “grown tired of myself;” her distant daughter Doña Clara (Madeline Wise), and the orphaned surrogate daughter-companion known as Pepita (Sumaya Bouhbal). There are Esteban (Zachary Infante) and Manuel (Bradley James Tejeda, fresh off his title turn in Two River’s sensational “El Coquí Espectacular”), a pair of young twin brothers seeking their place in the world, while the local convent abbess Madre María (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) provides a much-needed fixed point of reference on the home front. Completing the cast (and taking on the roles of five different men, women and children) is Steven Rattazzi, last seen at Two River in “The School for Wives.”

Conspicuous in his absence is the novel’s Brother Juniper, the Franciscan friar whose inquiries into the tragic event lead him to compile histories honoring those who lost their lives — at ultimate peril to his own life. In lieu of the missing monk, Greenspan imbues his Uncle Pio with the powers of the show’s narrator — setting the scene, serving as one-man chorus, and bridging transitions between time and space in a manner not unlike that of the Stage Manager figure in “Our Town.” It’s a tip of the hat to the envelope-pushing 20th century playwright, who opted not to do his own adaptation of the novel — and one of a number of meta-theatrical touches in a project that name-checks Wilder, shares some sly jokes with the audience, and steps outside of itself in many ways.

All of it adds up to a whimsical whirlwind tour of the original story; one that leaves off just a couple of stops short of parody. In his humorous introduction, Greenspan-Pio quickly dispenses with any notion of visualizing the fatal accident (“Like you’ll believe they’re falling off a bridge!”), and at one point brings forth a character who is merely referred to in passing within the original book — “and yet here I am in the play,” says Don Vincenzo, thanking the “most generous playwright.” Portions of the dialogue are conveyed in rhyme; actors converse with themselves in multiple roles, and one young character (Camila’s epileptic son Jaime) is represented by a rag doll — an echo of an amazing people-and-puppets version of “Our Town” that Two River produced several seasons back.

While it’s clear that the stage is very much in the command of David Greenspan, the ringmaster who assures us at the outset that “any fault you find with the play is mine and mine alone,” the other members of the company step up to their roles in this tableau with a minimum of set elements and a handsome collection of costumes by Broadway veteran Elizabeth Hope Clancy. The director Schmoll and actress Ramos maintain the rapport they established in “Padilla” with a portrait of a Perichole who transitions from proudly old-style entertainer to doubt-plagued artist, and from disease-ravaged recluse to a traveler searching for answers in a cruelly random universe. It’s a realm of orphans in more ways than one; a place in which the bonds of blood fail, while the stuff of family is more often found through employment and other tenuous arrangements.

Lurking in the wings is the knowledge that five of these interconnected lives will disappear into a yawning chasm with the sudden failure of that ancient bridge. Appearing as it does within this cultural moment, this reverie on mortality, spirituality, and the theatricality of it all doesn’t pretend to offer any easy answers to age-old questions. But, with all due respect to Mr. Wilder’s original vision, the Greenspan-Two River take on “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” reclaims a certain celebration of community from the solitary business of death; a healthy amount of humor from the miserable rituals of mourning, and a messy poetry from a world in which we can’t help but wonder “why one lives and why one dies; why some fall and why some rise.”

THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY

WHERE: Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank

WHEN: Wednesdays through Sundays until March 18

TICKETS: $20 – $70, www.tworivertheater.org or 732-345-1400