PBTS Co-Directors Suzanne Hudson Smith and Lee Hamby Meet in the Middle with ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Suzanne Hudson Smith and Lee Hamby

When Suzanne Hudson Smith first stepped into her new role as executive director of Players by the Sea, she was adamant that despite her theatre background, she had no plans to direct a show unless it was the right piece. When a last-minute calendar change added The Bridges of Madison County to the season schedule, she knew it was the opportunity she was waiting for.

Bridges of Madison County is a very intimate story that has so many little pieces to it. It’s what theatre does, in that we are able to present a story and the last piece that’s missing in that story is the audience. The audience has to bring their personal feeling to it, and then it becomes a whole piece. We don’t make any decision. We don’t judge. We just present the piece,” says Hudson, who is sharing directing duties with Lee Hamby.

Bridges of Madison County opens January 25th at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach (www.playersbythesea.org). The musical production runs through February 16th.

Stepping in to co-direct this musical production also gave Hudson the chance to partner with Lee Hamby. “The two of us directing was a golden opportunity for me. If I had an opportunity to work with a director in town my very first time, not to say that’s what we’d normally do, either of us, but he was like, ‘Oh my gosh yes, come,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, can I?’” she says.

“It’s a beautiful book, a wonderful movie, and [with] the musical, I hope people leave here going ‘Would I have done that? What would’ve been my choice?’ The stage brings you right into the story, and it becomes really personal. People are having to make decision[s], and they’re faced with destiny and deep feelings and awakenings, and you collide with people in your life you never planned for. What do you do? What’s your responsibility? What’s the consequence? This story has all of that.”

Handling the delicate fabric of such an intimate love story, Hudson is reminded of her first turn as director. “The show was The Fantasticks, a beautiful love story about youth and love and hope and the world is fabulous,” she recalls, “and this show turns into, ‘This is the real world,’ and you kind of go ‘Ahhh!’ But it’s that undercurrent of love and the relationship, so this was the show.”

Bridges of Madison County chronicles the hushed love story between Robert Kindcaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment to capture the fabled covered bridges of rural Iowa, and Francesca, an Italian war bride living a quiet life on her family’s farm. Based off of the bestselling novel written by Robert James Waller, the story tells of how the sadness of Francesca’s solitude is broken when her husband and children leave for the 1965 Iowa State Fair and the weary photographer stops to ask directions for his assignment. The pair share an instant connection that runs deep yet is desperately short-lived.

PBTS, Bridges of Madison Co_Photo by Maya Adkins_3
Photo by Maya Adkins

David Diehl as Robert and Erin Barnes as Francesca offer depth and seasoned talent to their respective roles. Barnes recently appeared in ABET’s James & the Giant Peach. This marks Diehl’s return to the stage following a lengthy hiatus from performing. Eric Yarham, Susan Roche, Del Austin, Kaylee Hendry, John Flannagan, Jodie Jernigan, Zoe Bell, Leanne Gullo, Alex Young and Richie Rosado round out the cast.

Photo by Maya Adkins

“It’s funny because it’s mainly [Robert and Francesca], and you have these characters around them that don’t have much to do, but they’re so important. Even though they don’t do a ton, they are so integral to the plot,” Hamby says. “The ensemble creates the big transitions in scenes. It’s so beautifully written that way. It’s all there for you, if you just make it kind of simple and pretty.”

The connection between Hudson and Hamby is easy and fluid, and that style is reflected in the way they each approach the piece. “For me, nothing is sacred. If it is, I’ll say it,” notes Hamby. “We tweak and change each other’s stuff. I trust her. We spoke about the visual and the concept, and we agreed on all that. Once you have all the conceptual stuff, you go from there. I love co-directing with people like her that love to get into that deep nitty gritty.”

For Hudson, she was anxious to work with Hamby as the “a big picture guy” while she prefers to orchestrate the small, intricate details within that framework. “Working together is always how do you do this thing as a co-director? Lee can set up pictures on the stage, and, me, I dig into the relationship between everything that’s going on. The intersection for us is the energy and passion we bring to the theatre. We’re both passionate about the story, and what we’re doing, but it sparks creativity for both of us. We’re very respectful of it,” she says.

“He and I are bouncing things off each other and feeding off each other. He has great vision for those pictures. So, for us and this piece, we both were like it would be a dream to be able to put the two of those things together, and make this the story it deserves to be.”

Hudson is hopeful that the serendipitous schedule change that shifted her path to Hamby and the Bridges of Madison County will also help guide Players by the Sea as they embark on a new year. “Of all the shows that I would step into…I saw this as a really great opportunity to start 2019 to bring a lot of things together,” she says. “I think the last six months for me here have been about, pardon the pun, building bridges and crossing over and starting to put our feet on a path that would be strong and open to many people, and get back to that root of being community theatre. So, all those things in that show did that for me.”

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