The highly accomplished Virginia Theatre Company (formerly Vpstart Crow Productions) seems to have gone gentle into not such a good night and disappeared. To fill the considerable void that the troupe has left behind, the Cramer Center in Manassas, its former home base, has gone into the play production business. Its first show is an earnest but undistinguished presentation of Thornton Wilder's oft-staged classic, "Our Town."
There are advantages and disadvantages to performing this 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which finds universal truths in the cycle of life and death between 1901 and 1913 in what we like to think of as quintessential small-town America, the fictional village of Grover's Corners, N.H. The most obvious benefit for a theater company's first-time production is that Wilder specified that that play be performed without scenery or props, a startling theatrical innovation when Wilder first unveiled this work. Of course, the attendant challenge is the way this puts the entire burden of creating a warm little corner of the world squarely on the shoulders of the actors.
Director Heather Naron-Hiller has added to that risk by giving the central role of Stage Manager, who talks directly to the audience as narrator and guide, to Jay Tilley. Tilley is one of the busiest performers around, seemingly always onstage somewhere in the metropolitan area. He's a man with abundant talent and stage presence who, before long, will probably be landing roles with the major area theater companies. But his reputation has been established primarily as a performer in musicals, where outsize emotions and vivid personas are usually appropriate. This role, however, is that of a quiet and reflective person, calling for a light but character-rich touch.
Tilley shows promise here, and actually warms to the task as the story unfolds. Early on, he seems to be offering play-by-play commentary, dispassionate and neutral. But as we spend time with the families of Grover's Corners, sharing their joys and sorrows, Tilley seems to slow down and begin savoring the memories, gradually getting closer to the ideal of an avuncular, philosophical observer bathed in nostalgia and reflection on the natural flow of life and death. One suspects he will plumb the deeper reaches of the character as the performances continue.
Outstanding performances are turned in by Dan Arnold as George, whom we see grow from awkward teenager to young husband, and Jennifer Douglas-Craig as Mrs. Gibbs, the wife of the town doctor. For a father of five, Arnold is remarkably convincing as an open-faced 17-year-old, carefully calibrating George's maturation into adulthood. As George's sweetheart, Emily, whose story reveals many of the themes Wilder is exploring, Sarah Ellis avoids a saccharine characterization and gives the girl-turned-woman some unexpected grit.
The rest of the large cast is uneven, with both good and poor performances. Naron-Hiller seems unable to have some of them go beyond rote recitation of lines, and while the drama unfolds smoothly and sincerely, the significant atmosphere and emotion this powerful play is capable of producing is only lightly tapped.
The director also errs by having much of the dialogue spoken by actors who have wandered offstage to inhabit unlighted corners of the theater, apparently forgetting this is not radio and we like to see who is talking. In fact, the lighting here is quite basic, with little noticeable effort made to evoke mood or aid transitions in emotional pitch. The one exception comes in the late, dramatically lighted scene of the dead conversing in the town cemetery as Emily poses the question at the heart of the play, "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?"
Well, do you?
"Our Town" will be performed today, Friday and Saturday at the Cramer Center, 9008 Center St., Manassas. Performances Friday and Saturday is 8 p.m., with a matinee today at 2 p.m. For tickets or information, call 703-365-8350.