Our Town

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Our Town photo
Scott Suchman/Ford's Theater

Editorial Review

REVIEW: More stagecraft, less Stage Manager in ‘Our Town’
By Peter Marks
Friday, February 1, 2013

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 birthrates.

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 gray.

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, which 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.

PREVIEW: Briton’s take on ‘Our Town’ loses the ‘cutesy’
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, January 25, 2013

For better or worse, the reputation of “Our Town” precedes it. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer-winner-turned-community-theater-staple has name recognition even beyond the casual theater fan. Just the title of the play conjures its quaint setting -- the fictional New England town of Grover’s Corners in the early 20th century -- and its renown as a sentimental tear-jerker.

That wasn’t the play Wilder set out to write, and it certainly isn’t the production Stephen Rayne is showcasing at Ford’s Theatre in celebration of the drama’s 75th anniversary. When the British director began considering the project, he picked up “Our Town” for the first time (although he already owned a copy of the script, he’s quick to point out) and was struck by the inaccuracy of his preconceptions.

“I had no idea that Thornton Wilder had written this play, which he thought was kind of a modernist take on Greek lines influenced by Brecht and Pirandello and by the modernists,” Rayne says. “I thought it was -- as I think most people do -- a kind of slice of Americana, a very cutesy New England play. And it’s not that at all.”

The play is guided by the Stage Manager, who addresses the audience directly, narrating the stories of the small-town residents as a way to explore such sweeping themes as love and marriage, birth and death. As Rayne notes, there are no real twists or life-shattering events that shake up the three acts. But that’s the point. Life’s small moments turn out to be what matter most.

“It was about human experience and about relationships and the passage of time, and it asks big questions about what we should be paying attention to in our lives,” Rayne says. “It’s absolutely like doing a play by Chekhov or a Shakespeare; it’s a classical play.”

The trick, then, is getting the audience to appreciate the well-worn play as more than the sum of its gee-whiz parts.

Rayne does that by staying true to Wilder’s minimalism and focus on universality. The spare set is made up entirely of chairs, which become buildings, stools or tombstones. Rayne also says he made a “near impossible request of the costume designer” -- to create outfits that don’t relate to a particular time or location.

“Let’s not try and let the audience relax into ‘Oh, I know where we are. I know what this place is,’ ” Rayne says. “And Wilder himself said as soon as you locate a play in time, you reduce it.”

The director also took cues from Wilder’s handwritten first draft, which called for a Stage Manager who is contemporary to the time in which the play is presented. In Rayne’s diverse production, that role is played by an African American woman, an actress known as Portia.

“If Thornton were alive, he’d be like, ‘Who knew I wrote that for a black woman?’ ” Portia jokes.

The play’s enduring popularity proves its age-spanning appeal, but Portia had to find common ground between herself, living in 2013, and the dialogue, which was written in the 1930s.

“When I got offered the role, I immediately picked up the play and my first thing was, ‘How do I put these words into my mouth and bring the two of us -- his words and who I am -- together?’ ” she recalls.

At a recent rehearsal, she slipped between roles, as the Stage Manager does occasionally, and played the narrator and a soda jerk. Yet she pulled off a contemporary lilt amid the old-timey dialogue, blurring the time periods.

An even bigger challenge may be to maintain composure in Rayne’s more sober adaptation -- especially during the famously emotional third act.

“That whole speech in there about the dead and the living and what happens to us -- it just touches something, and I’m standing there and wanting to feel things and [Rayne is] like, ‘No, no, get on with it,’ ” she mimics in a British accent. “And we had a conversation after and he said, ‘You have to play against that feeling. If you play against it, you’re going to give it to [the audience].’ ”

Rayne adds: “It’s hard with this play because you’re dealing with love and marriage and death; it’s hard not to be emotional about it.

“I said [to the cast], ‘That’s not our job. Our job is to be faithful and true to the human experience within the play. If the audience wants to react that way, that’s up to them.’ ”

In other words, bring along a few tissues, just in case.