In a musical about secrets, The Light in the Piazza has a doozy right at its core. It's easy to think that the show, crafted by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel from Elizabeth Spencer's novella, is about the story's young lovers, Florentine Fabrizio and American Clara. After all, it's their love story that provides the spark and many of the complications in the show.
Yet there's something deeper here. At its heart, The Light in the Piazza is about Margaret, Clara's mother and protector. As the play unfolds, she is confronted by the assumptions she has made about her daughter, the deep guilt she feels over a terrible moment from Clara's childhood, and a growing dissatisfaction with where her life has gone.
For Theatre Latte Da's production, Kathleen Humphrey takes on the role of Margaret, the wife of a tobacco executive from North Carolina who has traveled to Italy to spend a summer with her daughter. Humphrey creates a fully rounded character out of the pieces given to her by Lucas (who wrote the book) and Guettel (lyrics and music).
The Light in the PiazzaOrdway McKnight Theatre345 Washington St., St. Paul651.224.4222; through April 7
Her life is reflected in the complex, often seemingly dissonant score. From the opening overture, Guettel layers on musical themes that build through the challenging first act and then fully unfold in the satisfying final 20 minutes of the play, topped off with Margaret's soul-defining "Fable."
Back to our lovers. Romance blossoms in Florence between Fabrizio and Clara, who meet over a lost hat and quickly fall for each other. Margaret is hesitant from the start, trying to delay any future meetings between the two. The fates seem to intercede, with Fabrizio tracking down the pair at every turn in Florence. Fabrizio doesn't speak much English, while there is something ... off about Clara.
The language barrier also provides texture. There are songs and scenes almost entirely in Italian, which means that Clara and Margaret — and the audience — are often getting only the gist of what's going on. It nicely evokes the disconnect you feel when traveling in a country where you don't speak the language.
Fredrickson carries off the innocence and confusion of her character very well, playing emotions on the surface without becoming cloying (or telegraphing the story's surprises). Knezevich plays his character with great warmth, projecting a protective aura around Clara that lets us know their relationship is going to be okay.
In the end, it all comes down to Humphrey's performance. Solid and stately, the actor brings out all the care a mother should have for a child, and the character's own issues never overwhelm her sense of duty. The moments when Margaret needs to let go are uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time, and Humphrey carries the day with subtlety and grace.