Review: Bright Star
By Perry Tannenbaum
There are plenty of things you can carry in a basket, a handbag, or a satchel, but one of the last you might consider is a baby. Apparently, some moms have gravitated toward the idea without dire consequences. Moses seemed to turn out okay, and the pseudo-title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest weathers the indignity on a slightly bumpy ride to comedy bliss.
In Bright Star, a rustic musical written by Steve Martin with Edie Brickell, Alice Murphy watches this inhumane transport just moments after she has given birth – despite her furious efforts against the more powerful men in the room. It’s the last time she sees the baby, and it becomes a moment that haunts and sours her life for a long, long time afterwards. As vivid as this image is by itself, Martin finds ways to make this satchel moment even more vivid afterwards.
Music and lyrics, mountain-and-bluegrass tinged, sustain this wide-arcing storyline, even if they don’t quite equal it. The way things work out for Alice resembles some of the less popular late Shakespeare plays – The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest – where there is too much suffering and regret spread over multiple decades for their happy endings to be giddy and gleeful.
We mostly see Alice during the two main crises of her story, both of them dramatic encounters with Jimmy Ray Dobbs. The first is when they meet in Zebulon, NC, in the early ‘20s, when he becomes her beau – until the spectacular baby-in-the-satchel catastrophe – and the second is after WW2, when they reconnect by fortuitous accident in Raleigh. Jimmy Ray is the mayor’s son, so we readily understand why Mayor Dobbs would object to Alice on greedy, plutocratic grounds. Daddy Murphy’s objections are harder to divine, but they seem virulent and religious. The cogs of Martin’s plot wouldn’t fall perfectly into place if Josiah Dobbs and Daddy Murphy weren’t briefly on the same page.
Daddy is a man of conscience. Mayor Dobbs is a rich politician. Huge difference ordinarily.
All the circles of misfortune begin veering back to bliss when Billy Cane, fresh home after serving in the war, shows up at Alice’s office, where she edits the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. Even local icon Carl Sandburg finds it difficult to get published there, though Alice admits that Tennessee Williams shows some promise. If Billy can sufficiently polish up just one of the manuscripts he has brought with him, enough that it gets published in the Journal, it will validate him as possessing the gifts – and the individual voice – of a significant writer.
Bitterness has made Alice a stern judge. Yet because of her toughness she’s a valuable mentor if she believes in you. A weirdly powerful alchemy begins to brew as Alice offers Billy scraps of encouragement. It’s something to write home about, and Billy’s correspondent is Margo Crawford, the girl he left behind twice – to soldier in a war and to make his way in the literary world. Finding his voice will bring Billy back home. Improbably, Alice will follow, and she will find that this was the place she needed to be.
There’s plenty emotional territory for Audrey Cardwell to cover as Alice: genial hostess, tough-love mentor, and dad-crossed lover. Yet the only traces of charisma that I found was from the embittered, autumnal woman behind the editorial desk. Her other selves were relatively generic, never really vivacious, as if tragedy had tainted her slightly before it really struck. I liked Henry Gottfried more fully as the slightly naïve, slightly quixotic, slightly self-absorbed and oblivious Billy, an easier role to fill out.
In an old-timey, rusticated story the melodramatic dads played as well as the bluegrass music. John Leslie Wolfe as Daddy Murphy and Jeff Austin as Mayor Dobbs ably demonstrated that a wide spectrum of righteous, indignant, and utterly vile ranting can be plausible reactions to pure innocence. Against these intimidating infernos, the good folk were somewhat overshadowed, but you won’t find Patrick Cummings as Jimmy Ray, Liana Hunt as Margo, or David Atkinson as Daddy Cane hard to like at all.
Of these, I probably enjoyed Daddy Cane the most because he doesn’t take himself seriously up yonder in the backwoods. Allison Briner-Dardenne does well with Mama Murphy, the most conflicted person we see. Strewn through Martin’s story are several hard choices that folks get wrong, but while Martin is gracefully completing circles of love and birth that span decades, he also renders regret, forgiveness, reconciliation, and kindness in fine style.