O’Hara’s temporary absence from the musical is “a sort of unintended thing,” Sher said. “But it’s too important to get the time to go away and explore it.”
They’re doing that at Williamstown, Brown added, because they wanted to work on the piece in a place where it wouldn’t feel like a commercial tryout.
“We needed the stakes to be high artistically but not high financially,” he said. “We needed to feel like it was someplace that was warm, and the audience at Williamstown is very warm, and the environment there is very warm. And honestly, it’s a show about community and family and all of those things, and we didn’t want to start our journey in someplace very clinical.”
Sher, wary of being influenced by Eastwood’s movie, said he hasn’t seen it, though he did read Waller’s book. It falls to Norman, Brown, and others to help him make sure that their adaptation doesn’t leave out anything essential. Norman sounded confident that they’ve pulled that off. “We’ve managed to keep in this little ticking heart of it,” she said.
She views the story as yet another incarnation of the stranger-in-a-strange-land narrative. She also detects in it a thematic resemblance to the folk tale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” in which the goats long to cross a bridge to graze on the other side.
“They try to get over the bridge, but they can’t, because there’s a troll under the bridge that comes out and goes” — here Norman made a storybook-fierce growling sound — “and scares them, so they can’t get to this extraordinary pasture that’s beyond.” Until, that is, the biggest billy goat takes on the troll and wins.
To Norman, the troll represents “social morality and teachings and all those kind of warnings that the society would give you about ‘Don’t go to the happy place.’ Don’t go, because terrible things will happen to you if you go to the happy place, to the pasture, to the green lands right across the bridge.”
“But Francesca does,” she said. “And then she decides to come back. So, in a sense, you know, it’s this replaying of this story of ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,’ which is taught to all women from day one: Don’t do the dangerous thing. Don’t go on the great opportunity. Don’t have the big adventure.”
Norman paused a storyteller’s pause.
“But Francesca does,” she repeated, “which is why we’re telling this.”
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.