By Susan T. Hessel

Mabel Tidings Bigelow wants to celebrate her birthday the way she always has—playing croquet on the lawn. But everyone tells her she is too old at 90 for such games. 
Mabel tells the audience in the opening monologue of Commonweal Theatre’s “Pride’s Crossing” that she is going to celebrate this rite of passage her way. And you better believe she does.

That is what actress Adrienne Sweeney loves about the character she portrays in the production running through Nov. 13 in historic downtown Lanesboro, Minnesota.

“She is just ornery. I love her orneriness. She is so headstrong,” said the actress, who plays the character from ages 14 to 90 in the production.

“Pride’s Crossing” is a fictionalized version of the story of Gertrude Ederle, who in 1926 became the first woman to take the big swim across the English Channel. After her success on her second attempt, she told The New York Times, “I knew it could be done, it had to be done, and I did it.”

Though the character’s name is different in the play, the spirit is the same. “She is a ground-breaking woman who takes after her brothers who were Olympians,” Sweeney said.

Originally, I planned to write this column about another Commonweal production ending in early September called “Souvenir.” It’s a fictionalized story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who let no one stop her from singing opera, no matter how bad she was.

By chance, I bought a Jenkins biography earlier this year after hearing about her God-awful records and Carnegie Hall performance that had people laughing. My own successful singing career was stopped in elementary school when I was told to “mouth the words.” (At age 60, I did play a mute in a musical.)

“‘Souvenir’ is so beautiful. She believes so strongly in herself,” Sweeney said. “The audience doesn’t faze her. Her message is to just believe in yourself and do what you need to do.”

Sweeney encouraged me to compare the two strong women, who grew up with certain expectations about how they should behave. They ignored critics and listened to their hearts.   

Sweeney, who is also in Commonweal’s production of “Three Musketeers,” the play that alternates with “Pride’s Crossing,” believes theatre starts conversations. Even the humorous, swashbuckling “Three Musketeers,” performed through Oct. 24, addresses issues of loyalty, honor and friendship.

Sweeney doubles as the theatre’s director of external communications, something quite common at the nonprofit, professional theatre. Everyone wears multiple hats—and costumes.

Commonweal Theatre, which is in its 28th season, performs plays in reparatory, which means you can catch two different plays in a weekend.

Sweeney, who grew up in Philadelphia, has performed professionally in other cities, including Baltimore, Tucson and Minneapolis. She clearly loves this theatre, and like the swimmer and singer, is a strong woman in her own right.

Can’t make it to Lanesboro? Check out these productions in the La Crosse area during September and October.

  • La Crosse Community Theatre: “Sister Act,” Sept. 9-25. “Peter and the Starcatcher” Oct. 14-30.
  • Viterbo University Fine Arts Center’s Bright Star Season: “Heritage: A Mosaic of Musical Artistry,” Sept. 17; “Vicki Lawrence and Mama—A Two-Woman Show,” Sept. 18; William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Oct. 7-9; and “Mamma Mia!,” Oct. 18.
  • The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Theatre Arts Department: “26 Pebbles,” Oct. 14-23. (This is Eric Ulloa’s play about the 26 children and school leaders who died in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.)