Few stories evoke strong feelings of nostalgia, romance and heartbreak as “The Bridges of Madison County.”

“Bridges,” which shares the story of Francesca and Robert, is thought of by many as one of the greatest love stories from contemporary literature. It has made its mark in on the page, on the screen and, now, on the stage.

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The story is that of a middle-aged Italian woman, Francesca, who has created a family in Madison County, Iowa. Francesca is married and has two children, but still finds she is lonely.

Her loneliness is cured when she gets swept up in a whirlwind romance, and extra-marital affair, with Robert – a photographer with the National Geographic who is visiting on assignment.

The two fall in love and plan to run away together. However, before they do Francesca decides it is best for her children if she stays.

First published as a novel in 1992, the story was adapted to the screen in a 1995 film and to the stage in 2014. Now, a national touring performance is bringing the classic love story to Minnesota.

Elizabeth Stanley, who plays Francesca, took some time to talk about what makes “Bridges” a challenging, but timeless story.

(credit: Matthew Murphy)

(credit: Matthew Murphy)

You’ve played a love interest before, but how does this show differ from some of the others you’ve done?

Stanley: Typically the role of a female love interest in a musical is young and naive or evil and sexy, and they are often yearning for love or attention. Francesca is so wonderful because she’s very complete as a character. She’s a middle-aged woman, a mother, an honest soul and she’s not actively looking for romance.

It sounds like a very interesting juxtaposition to play a main character that is somewhat fully developed at the start of the show. Tell me, what was one way you were surprised to find you identified with Francesca?

Stanley: I think it’s easy to think “I would NEVER have an extra-marital affair,” but once I started pealing back the layers of this character, I really empathized with her circumstances. [I] found myself questioning what choices I would make in her shoes.

As you mentioned, the idea and act of an affair is usually seen as a negative thing. Why do you think people react differently to it in this story?

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Stanley: As I said above, I think it’s very easy to think “I’d never do that.” But when you see inside someone’s life, as this story allows the audience to do, I think it makes people put down their judgments and admit that life is often times quite messy and not always black and white.  Making “mistakes,” and/or doubting one’s choices, is very much a part of the human experience.

Along the same lines, what do you think it is about this story that has made it last the test of time?

Stanley: It’s an epic romance, and it’s a little sad. So, I think it taps in to people’s longing for a deep love and hope of finding a “soul mate,” but also people’s experiences of the struggles within those relationships. To love deeply, often means to hurt deeply, too. People come to the theatre to feel something.

Perhaps that’s why this show has crossed over from novel to film to musical; it allows people to experience something they may not have otherwise. Tell me, what was the most challenge part of doing this show?

Stanley: The truncated rehearsal time. The roles of Francesca and Robert are so massive, and the relationship so delicate, I don’t think I really felt like I settled in to the character until we’d be performing it for a couple of months.

I can see how it would be difficult to feel like a fully formed character with such a quick rehearsal schedule! Now that you’re settled in, what is your favorite song/scene in the show?

Stanley: I really love the song “Look At Me.” It’s one of the first moments that we see Francesca starting to awaken with the questions of what is happening within herself since she’s met Robert.  That’s a fun moment to play.

This show is based on a novel, which was also adapted into the very popular film featured  Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood? How does the show differ from this film? How did you work to make sure your performance was different and unique?

Stanley: The book of the musical (by Marsha Norman) includes some scenes with the community of Winterset, IA, as well as with Francesca’s family. I think by the nature of the stage version being a musical, we didn’t have to work a great deal to make our performances different than the movie. I would have been very nervous if I were doing a re-make of the movie. But with this different medium, it’s naturally a completely different way of telling the story.

That’s great that simply the nature of the medium allows for enough differentiation. So, what is one thing Minnesota audiences would be surprised to learn about this tour?

Stanley: My hair isn’t really brown!?

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The Bridges of Madison County” opens Tuesday, June 21. It runs through Sunday, June 26. Tickets cost $39 to $134. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Hennepin Theatre Trust online.