Let it be said that the puppets look fine when they are portraying the dead of Grover’s Corners, N.H. Sitting upright in child-size chairs — each seat different from the next in a sign of each departed soul’s distinctness — the puppets are calm, patient and matter-of-fact. Their demeanor seems to signal a meeting point between cosmic mystery and the richness of everyday life — exactly what Thornton Wilder is exploring at this point in his classic play “Our Town.”
Unfortunately, the bunraku-style puppetry isn’t always as felicitous in Olney Theatre Center’s “Our Town,” directed by Aaron Posner. Unfurling on an intimate scale in the 150-seat Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, the production contains fine moments of gentle comedy and warm human truth, and some core performances are winning. But as designed by Aaron Cromie and — more importantly — voiced and animated by the seven-actor cast, the puppets who depict the tale’s supporting characters often come across as cutesy. Their adorable folk-art look and idiosyncratic voices — lots of lovable-old-coot speaking patterns — ultimately distance us from the simple but profound reality of Grover’s Corners.
That’s not to dismiss the daring behind the decision to incorporate puppetry into Wilder’s landmark work, a Pulitzer-winning fable that famously begins with the stage directions “No curtain. No scenery.” As the accomplished Posner has noted (according to the show’s news release), the bare-stage look was groundbreaking in 1938, when “Our Town” premiered, but these days, verges on cliche. By using puppets, Posner has aimed to recapture the freshness and playfulness Wilder intended.
Striving similarly to honor Wilder’s vision in a new way, Misha Kachman has designed a set featuring two unfinished house facades. Onto the walkway connecting the facades and dividing the audience (the play is performed alley-style) strolls the Stage Manager (Jon Hudson Odom, looking mildly amused), who proceeds to speak to us directly about the people and customs of Grover’s Corners, circa 1901. (In a sprightly metatheatrical touch, the town’s sounds, such as train whistles, are produced by the actors, Foley-style. Helen Q. Huang designed the simple costumes.)
The townsfolk include newspaper editor Mr. Webb (a terrific Todd Scofield), father to Emily (Cindy De La Cruz, artfully aging from bratty to mature), who will marry her neighbor George Gibbs (an endearingly callow William Vaughan), the son of Dr. Gibbs (Tony Nam, too one-note). Holding the social fabric together are the tirelessly bean-stringing, meal-cooking Mrs. Webb (Andrea Harris Smith) and Mrs. Gibbs (a nuanced Megan Anderson).
When the actors branch out to channel the voices of the puppet characters — such as the town’s alcoholic choirmaster Simon Stimson or the perky milkman Howie Newsome — they overdo distinctive quirks, exacerbating the cutesiness factor.
By contrast, the puppet-free scenes can be graceful and appealing. A highlight is a conversation between Mr. Webb and a jittery George on the morning of the latter’s wedding. Embarrassment and exasperation course under the chitchat, which touches on marriage advice and the Philo System for raising chickens. Ultimately, the irked-but-kindly Mr. Webb can only be so helpful: George will have to learn about marriage, and the universe, for himself.
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Aaron Posner; sound design, Sarah O’Halloran; lighting, Thom Weaver. About 2 hours 30 minutes. Tickets: $59-$74. Through Nov. 12 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.