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Over the Falls

Rating:*** 1/2
World premiere of Arlene Brent Fanale's dramatization of the life of Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Directed by Neal Radice, and starring Mary Loftus as Taylor.

Performances continue Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 17 in the Alleyway Theatre, One Curtain Up Alley.

On Oct. 24, 1901, in a barrel made to her own specifications, Anna Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls and survive. It was to be the highlight of her life.

Arlene Brent Fanale has written a play called "Over the Falls" in which she explores Taylor's motivations for taking that remarkable plunge. She depicts Taylor as a suppressed woman of meager means whose life is controlled by the social mores of the time and by the petty authorities around her. From within this maddening confinement, however, Annie indulges enormous fantasies and a fascination with water, which she sees as a liberating force. She decides that a trip over Niagara Falls will free her -- spiritually and financially.

The dramatic situation is quite fascinating. Fanale tells the story in chronologically ordered episodes, divided into two acts. Act 1 leads upward from Taylor's life as a schoolteacher to her feat at Niagara; Act 2 charts her downward slide to the county poorhouse.

Much of the play is noteworthy. Fanale effectively uses comedy and the devices of theater; Taylor's journey down the falls, the joining of her desires and her confinement, is thrilling. This is the premiere production of the play, however, and not surprisingly, it could use substantial cutting and shaping. Act 2, though not without interest, careers out of control at times.

Mary Loftus is marvelous as Annie Edson Taylor. She almost single-handedly subdues the play into dramatic coherence, tackling the role with a winning combination of naturalism and theatricality. By concentrating on Taylor's undying determination, she gives us an unhackneyed glimpse of the woman's sadness and her humanity. Through Loftus, we see Taylor as a person who, despite her all-consuming ambition, was vulnerable, and who, despite an inner fury, was forgiving.

Colleen Gaughan gives a polished and articulate performance as Marian Park, a reporter who befriends Taylor. Paul O'Hern is very good as Taylor's manager. Loraine O'Donnell enjoys some sassy, broad playing as the best friend. William Laurie, M.L. McDonough, Scott Lyle and Kristine Miller are quite fine in smaller roles.

Neal Radice's direction gives the play basic contour, even if the detail is lacking in the scenes involving the secondary characters. He has incorporated Steve Supparits' set and his own lighting design into the production with great success, and his use of recorded music (Supparits designed the sound) holds the episodic work together and helps to move the scenes along.

With all the Buffalo and Niagara references, the work has obvious local appeal. Fanale has successfully presented universal themes through the story of Anna Edson Taylor; she should now concentrate on focusing the work.

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