Performing Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey at Fairfield Ludlow High School
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” So begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the great achievements in American literature and a novel still read widely throughout the world.
On December 2, 2016, Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, Connecticut will present the East Coast premiere of Cynthia Meyer and The Rogue Theatre’s adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. For more than three months, student actors under their director have been working on this ambitious production, learning parts and investigating the text, characters and themes of this famous literary masterpiece. How has it all gone? Does The Bridge of San Luis Rey still speak to modern readers and audiences? The company recently shared their experiences working on the show with the Wilder family.
Frances Kondziela is the play’s director and a self-confessed Wilder fanatic. Over the course of her career, she has directed high school productions of Our Town three times and The Skin of Our Teeth once. “Our Town became my decade piece,” she recalls, “performed every 10 years, to mark the passing of time (to highlight our not realizing that “all that was going on and we never noticed”).” When she saw The Rogue Theatre’s production of The Bridge of San Luis Rey highlighted in American Theatre Magazine, Kondziela immediately wrote the Wilders asking permission to stage it at her school.
Unlike Kondzilea, almost all of the student actors performing in The Bridge are experiencing Wilder for the first time. Surprised by the combination of the straightforwardness of the writing and the intricacy and emotional depth of Wilder’s message, without exception they have expressed a newfound passion for Thornton Wilder. The actor playing Brother Juniper enjoyed the “philosophical complexity of Wilder’s work.” A student performing one of the Narrators’ roles explained, “He has such a unique voice and style of writing, which is especially visible in this adaptation. It definitely makes me want to read more Wilder!”
Despite the students’ enthusiasm for the text, there are those who feel that the deeper, sad and dark levels of The Bridge of San Luis Rey are too complicated for high school students to fully comprehend. Kondziela disagrees. “Breaking news surrounds them 24/7 and along with it, the world’s many tragedies: wars, shootings, accidents and illnesses that strike young and old alike randomly.” She went on to say that she believes today’s teenagers are forced to be more aware and, as a result, have more stress. “An opportunity to discuss and perform The Bridge of San Luis Rey is also a welcome opportunity to open up and discuss those feelings, and realize we are not alone.”
The students seem to concur with their director’s assessment. When asked if the story of The Bridge felt relevant and personal, they agreed overwhelmingly that it does. For some, the story brought to mind their experiences of the many recent school shootings. Others were reminded of the ways in which all of our lives are interwoven—our words, our actions always have an impact on someone else, even though we may not realize it. Others found comfort in Wilder’s words. “The idea of wanting to help people or really make sense of what you see in the world, and failing at both is something most teenagers can find resonance in,” remarked the actor who plays Brother Juniper. And the actress who plays Abbess Madre Maria observed, “This play makes me think about the importance of family and those I love; you can loose them in an instant. Thornton Wilder’s words in this play assure me that despite acts of terror, tragedy and hate, there will always be love.”
Of the many multifaceted personalities in The Bridge, one of the most intriguing is the character of Camila Perichole. The greatest actress of her day, famous throughout Lima, the Perichole eventually abandons her profession and adoring fans for a life of wealth in the a countryside estate provided by a former lover and father of her only child. Near the end of Wilder’s story, she contracts smallpox and refuses to show her face outside the walls of her home as her former fans revel in her downfall.
We asked our student- actors what modern-day celebrities might be compared to the Perichole. Many decided that Miley Cyrus might be her contemporary equivalent. “She was America’s sweetheart,” remarks Fairfield High School’s Perichole of 2016. “Then she went a little crazy in the public eye, but like the Perichole, she eventually became a more enlightened person.” Others comparisons included Celine Dion, Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan, and, of course, Britney Spears. “People love to watch celebrities fall from grace,” remarked a student who plays one of the narrators. “It makes them more relatable and human.”
Overall, most of the students were surprised that a story written in 1927 still had such a contemporary feel. “If you’ve ever felt love or loss,” said one actor, “it resonates beautifully.” The actress who plays Dona Maria commented, “This play makes me think about the fact that we can never really know anyone except ourselves.”
What does Frances Kondziela hope performers and audiences will take with them from their experience with this production? “Just like crazy Brother Juniper, we need to realize that people cannot be rated or categorized,” she observes. “The profound questions Wilder is asking in the piece are the same ones that we all have asked at one time or another. I hope the actors and audiences alike come away with a sensitivity to loss, and an understanding that we are all in this together, trying to comprehend what is impossible to understand.”