The stark visual eloquence of Ford’s Theatre’s revival of “Our Town” informs Thornton Wilder’s portrait of the ordinary joys and sorrows of fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H. But the picture proves the evening’s most resonant element. The urgent underpinnings of life’s little victories and tragedies are never sufficiently activated in director Stephen Rayne’s new production, staged in honor of the Pulitzer-winning play’s 75th anniversary.
In a few sweet vignettes, the actors do create a reservoir of warm feeling: brother and sister George and Rebecca Gibbs (the excellent Nickolas Vaughan and Brynn Tucker), gazing at the moon while clinging to that iconic “Our Town” prop, a ladder; their father Doc Gibbs (a fine James Konicek), laying out for George the greater consideration he owes to his mother; the miming at the ice cream soda counter of smitten teenagers George and Emily Webb (the endearingly ardent Alyssa Gagarin).
As a counterpoint, there are satisfying notes of sourness in the tantrums of the alcoholic church organist Simon Stinson, played with a childishness bordering on outright comedy by the terrific Tom Story.
What’s lacking on this evening is an effective voice to sharpen the tragic focus of “Our Town’s” everyday events, one that creates a secure tonal framework for the evening. That task falls to its most visible player, the Stage Manager, a meta-theatrical presence who not only assists in keeping track of the large cast of characters, but also must help us to see that “Our Town” carries a meaning deeper than is recounted in humdrum Main Street gossip and facts about birth rates.
In practicing a sort of “Hi there, everybody!” bonhomie, the actress who goes by the single name of Portia turns the Stage Manager into a plastically ingratiating tour guide. Rather than the desired sense of stoic detachment, we get a brand of corporate pleasantness. “Now!” Portia intones gleefully again and again, as if she’s meant to get us all excited.
It’s the type of sugariness into which “Our Town” can unfortunately lapse. The play’s wisdom sometimes sounds as if it has been stitched into a sampler: “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” Emily, who dies in childbirth, asks from beyond the grave. For us to feel our eyes are being opened to truths hiding in plain sight, we have to believe the folks of Grover’s Corners don’t see them, either. Otherwise, “Our Town” is no weightier than a get-well card.
Still, one of the more rewarding lessons of this production is that the day-to-day affairs in the Gibbs and Webb households can be conveyed as persuasively by a colorblind cast as one that adheres more faithfully to the demographic strictures of the town at the turn of the 20th century as spelled out by the Stage Manager. Rayne reimagines the Gibbses and Webbs as interracial families, which reminds you that “Our Town” is about humankind, and not any one kind of human.
Craig Wallace and Kimberly Schraf, as Mr. and Mrs. Webb, and Konicek and Jenn Walker, as the Gibbses, conform to the idealized canvas of family life Wilder conjures; you understand through the performances what Emily means when she tells George she always thought of her father, and his, as being perfect. They all melt into the seamless mosaic the director seeks to construct, one reinforced in Kate Turner-Walker’s monochromatic costume designs: everyone wears shades of grey.
The gentle rhythms of small-town life are reflected, too, in the painstaking attention to miming everything from the milkman’s deliveries on horse-drawn cart to slurping through straws the dregs of strawberry ice-cream sodas. Movement and mime director Mark Jaster schools his actors well.
The set designer, Tony Cisek, conforms to this almost compulsively meticulous aesthetic with a refinement of the classically simple “Our Town” staging: the chairs on which the actors await their cues are all chalk-white. For the first two of the play’s three acts that culminate in the wedding in 1904 of George and Emily, the chairs are situated upstage and arranged symmetrically. In the final act, which takes place in the town cemetery and reveals the afterlife thoughts of the characters who’ve died, the perches of the chairs have been changed radically, and to dazzling effect.
The alteration intensifies the perception of the mournful omniscience the dead have acquired, and underlines the idea that of all of “Our Town’s” concerns, the awareness of the brevity of life looms as its most poignant. Although the production comes up a bit short in drawing from us the deep pools of empathy “Our Town” is capable of, it does by virtue of its stagecraft convey some timeless facets of Wilder’s vision.
By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Stephen Rayne; sets, Tony Cisek; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Pat Collins; original music and sound, David Budries and Nathan A. Roberts; movement and mime direction, Mark Jaster. With John Lescault, Susan Lynskey, Frederick Strother, Tony Nam, Jon Hudson Odom, Joey Ibanez, Kevin McAllister, Christopher Wilson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Feb. 24 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit www.fords.org or call 800-982-2787.