For Newbold actress Sarah Gliko, there is always a “but.”
As the South Philadelphia thespian, whose work has seized stages across the region, approached the multifaceted role of Francesca in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s upcoming production of “The Bridges of Madison County,” Gliko channeled the exceptions – the uncertainties – she knows well.
“(Francesca)’s content,” Gliko explained. “She is happy with this. She made this life here, but, but – there’s always a but. So, I can relate to that but.”
Featuring music and lyrics by acclaimed composer Jason Robert Brown, “The Bridges of Madison County,” which premiered on Broadway in 2014, strikes its own rendition to Robert James Waller’s 1992 best-selling story and Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep’s 1995 Oscar-nominated film.
Preparing for the Philadelphia premiere of this Tony Award-winning musical, Gliko, who was born in Montana and then later grew up in Delaware County, felt nearly every fiber of Francesca – an Italian-American immigrant from Naples who lives on a farm with her husband and two children during the 1960s in Madison County, Iowa.
When her family ventures to a state fair for a few days, Francesca, who is portrayed by Streep in the motion picture, finds her own adventure, sparking a fervent affair with Richard – a photographer for National Geographic who is cruising through Iowa shooting covered brides for a photo essay.
For Gliko, whose maternal grandmother is a native of Naples and paternal grandmother lived on a ranch in Montana, weaving these two identities almost seemed serendipitous.
“Those two worlds collide in me in a way that I really get,” she said. “…I know this woman. I think we all might know this woman.”
But, the parallels cut deeper in both Gliko’s artistry and heart.
The actress, who is a member of the Wilma Theatre’s HotHouse – “an incubator for artistic investigation and experimentation” – perceives Francesca’s struggle with selfhood.
Francesca’s zeal for art, an impractical passion for a stay-at-home mother at the time, is gratified by Richard’s photographic eye – a connection, and ultimately a yearning – that feels too spirited to be indecorous.
“The internal life for her I can relate,” she said. “I just felt an instant connection there. But, then the challenge is bringing all that stuff out in a way that is not just for me.”
While Gliko had an intuitive response to Francesa’s emotional dimensions, the actress says her primary challenge was tackling the production’s intricate vocal composition – a synthesis of pop, indie, country and classic Broadway.
Since dedicating the last few years to straight plays, including “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” “Blood Wedding” and “Constellations” at the Wilma, Gliko had to “make friends with her voice” again.
Gliko stresses that music elevates this well-known narrative in a way the novel and movie could not, as Robert’s brooding texture gingerly and operatically melds with Francesca’s delicate tones.
“This music is gorgeous,” she said. “And it’s kind of a dream to sing…there’s a lushness to the music that is just, I think, you can’t not be moved by it. This thing that they’re feeling that they’re getting swept up in – is actually something you can hear.”
With all theater, Gliko intends audiences will have their own interpretations of the piece. But, perhaps, she hopes, audiences will carry away with them a fleck of Francesca’s seldom-seen light.
At the end of the story, the character decides to stay with her family, and although the affair may have been forbidden, there is always a “but.”
“For her to recognize – he’s a kindred spirit…and to be like, ‘This feels amazing,’ and to be open enough to live it in those moments, moment to moment. And then, to have to make that choice,” Gliko said. “I think it’s like living in the moment and wanting to profoundly connect with a person and the world. It’s very isolated where she is and to feel like an actual citizen of the world is a big thing.”
Info: “The Bridges of Madison County” is running at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., through March 3. To purchase tickets and see show times, visit: https://philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/shows/the-bridges-of-madison-county/