American stories from every corner of the globe in FST’s Bridge & Tunnel.
By Kay Kipling
If you’ve ever doubted that the immigrant story is the story of America, you’ll find ample proof in Florida Studio Theatre’s current production (at the Gompertz Theatre) of Sarah Jones’ award-winning Bridge & Tunnel.
The title of the play (being staged for the first time in a regional production after its New York success) comes from the name of the decidedly downscale “theater” in “beautiful south Queens” where an annual poetry celebration is being held. All of the poets we see presenting their work, though, are portrayed by one actress, in this case Karen Stephens in one of those tour-de-force performances audiences tend to give (deserved) standing ovations.
Stephens first bounds onto the stage as the Pakistani-born Mohamed, accountant by day, would-be comedian by night; his lame jokes are just passable enough to make the transitions between one performer and another go quickly. Mohamed has concerns about an investigation that he’s a target of (as we learn in a phone call from his worried wife, reminding us without overdoing it how the world of immigrants has changed since 9/11), but they are kept in the background. He’s really more intent on moving the show along so that all of the other characters Stephens portrays have their turn on stage.
Those characters range from a Jewish grandmother from Long Island to the high-spirited Gladys from Jamaica to an angry Vietnamese-American young man (and yes, it’s the American part of that hyphenate that is accentuated with every one of the diverse minorities represented here).We also meet a young Mexican man, the wheelchair-bound Juan Jose, who tells a passionate story of his love for a young woman and his journey to this country; an older Chinese-American mother struggling to accept that her daughter is a lesbian; and another woman from Jordan, a professor who fondly recalls how the Beatles influenced her back in the 1960s.
Karen Stephens in one of her many roles in Bridge & Tunnel.
But I don’t want to tell you every story here; you need to discover them yourself, as Stephens makes the swift and subtle changes from male to female, young to old, across a wide spectrum of accents and experiences. Some characters will resonate with you more than others; that’s to be expected. But the general reminder one takes away from this 90-minute show (performed without intermission) is familiar but important: We were all immigrants once, and we and our country are richer for the life stories, traditions and heritages immigrants bring.
Bridge & Tunnel continues through Feb. 13; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.