Russ Hunt's Reviews

Our Town
by Thornton Wilder

Theatre St. Thomas
February 2006

A play that's regularly hailed as a timeless classic, Thornton Wilder's Our Town has a history to contend with.  Way too many people have seen listless high school productions of it, done not only because it seemed easy -- virtually no props, no sets, no necessity for much in the way of lighting or sound -- but also because it offers such a nice range of roles, from those sympathetic adolescents to those cute old folks to all the bit parts and throwaway roles that you need to give the less committed or experienced a chance at the stage. And then, too, its values are so mainstream, so solid, so unlikely to be upsetting to the parents who come out to see their kids have their moment in front of the footlights.

To take on a play bringing with it all those expectations and assumptions and make it something entirely new, something that not only calls forth our deepest sympathies but at the same time pushes us to rethink some fundamental values, and at the same time create a powerful, energizing theatrical experience, is a challenge I'd have thought only those elite theatres out in the big world equal to.  Surprise.

Theatre Saint Thomas' production of Our Town has so many surprisingly powerful things to offer that it's difficult to put them in order.  I'll start with a few things that ought, by rights, to be trivial, but aren't. I should probably start by characterizing the play, but everybody knows about the breaking of convention in having "the stage manager" on stage from the beginning to tell us about the characters, to start, stop and shape the action, and to philosophize about our everyday life, on a planet and in a time lost as a tiny speck in the midst of the eternal vastness of space and time. Everybody knows there's no set, no curtain, no backdrop. Everybody knows it's, well, sort of about the love between two adolescents from neighbour families in a small town in New Hampshire; everybody knows that we're shown all the everyday, banal stuff about life, the sort of thing the Stage Manager (let's give him his capital letters) calls "the Daily Life," or, as Randall Jarrell called it a few years later, "the dailiness of life."

Since I don't have to start with that, I'll start with Chris Saad's lighting, Mike Doherty's soundscape, and the power of the whole physical context to invite us to engage in the miracle of theatre.  Our Town, in some ways, is anti-theatrical, of course, dispensing with sets and costumes and frankly acknowledging the artificiality of the experience: here we are in the theatre, it says over and over, a bunch of actors pretending, telling you about a world.  Theatre Saint Thomas dispenses with props, as Thornton Wilder prescribed, but at the same time gives us wonderfully realistic and precisely timed sound effects -- for example, Howie Newsome's horse and milk cart, though invisible, are so clearly audible even people who've never heard a case of milk bottles or cart wheels on a dirt road or the creak of harness now know what that sounds like. From the opening, the utterly appropriate introductory music -- a lovely, nostalgic motif with a whiff of saxophone and cello, which begins right on the Stage Manager's cue -- to the perfect sound effects throughout, to the close, the sound system reminds us that everything that happens is chosen, deliberate, purposeful. The lighting works the same way, from subtle changes that draw our attention away from one action and lure us to focus on another, to the lovely moment when Dr. Gibbs blows out a candle, and the light does just what you'd think it would do when a candle was blown out.

Even more important to the experience is the way director Ilkay Silk has shaped the space and moves her actors about inside it.  In a wonderful demonstration of the flexibility of the Black Box Theatre, Our Town stretches across the space, from one wall to the opposite, with a raised space on either side for the kitchens of the Gibbs and Webb houses, and a marked square between where the Stage Manager maps out the town's geography, The audience is on two sides, each looking across the action to the other half of the audience, also watching.  The audience is never, even before the play begins, allowed to intrude upon the acting space: if you want to sit on the other side, you have to go out of the theatre and round to the other entrance. In that space, the fluid flow of the action moves smoothly back and forth, from one kitchen to another, to the Stage Manager over on the side, to the center, which is at various times the gardens between the two houses, the street, a soda fountain, or whatever's necessary. Entrances and exits, orchestrated to occur from all four directions, are timed perfectly to allow just the right amount of time.  Much of the power of Wilder's script involves creating the feeling of an absolute lack of haste or hurry, a conviction that we have all the time in the world. Of course, the danger of that is that an audience might start looking at their watches and wondering when we're going to get on with it.  That never happens in this production, because there is never an instant when we wonder what's next, or feel an empty pause.

At the same time, there's never a sense of rush, even when a dozen people need to get on or off stage -- for the wonderful wedding scene in Act II, for instance, where suddenly the acting space seems utterly full of wedding guests, or the cemetery in the last act, where the dead sit quietly in their chairs, uninterested in much, occasionally mentioning the weather, while the live, and the recently dead, move among them, reminding us how miraculous and terrible it is to be alive.

As we've come to expect from Silk's productions, the ensemble -- the way people move together, react to each other, focus on what they're doing without distracting us, contribute to the manipulation of our attention and sympathy -- is utterly solid. There are a few larger roles, and some striking tiny ones -- Darrell Mesheau in a wonderful comic turn as the irrelevant Professor Willard ("Shall I read some of Professor Gruber's notes on the meteorological situation?"); Lillian Drysdale as the sobbing, dotty Mrs. Soames at the wedding; Mike Coughlan as Howie Newsome the milkman, muscling his cases of milk and leading his aging horse down the street; Jordan Trethewey as the dead, cynical Simon Stimson ("Now you know -- that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to.  Ignotrance and blindness"), for example. The larger roles -- Dr. and Mrs Gibbs (Carl Dalton and Leah Holder), Mr. and Mrs Webb (Stu Forrestell and Emily Curry), and the young lovers, Emily and George (Megan Young and Sean Eidt), are all rock solid, clear and well-defined characters, and all (remarkably in the Black Box's dodgy acoustics) are  consistently understandable. If I was particularly struck by Carl Dalton's mature, calm certainty, even when confessing Dr. Gibbs' feeling of inadequacy ("I tell you, Julia, there's nothing so terrifying in the world  as a son"), and Emily Curry's businesslike Mrs.Webb, making breakfast and carrying on the dailiness of her life while Megan Young as the dead Emily watches in incomprehension, unable to understand how people can so miss the preciousness of every moment of life, that's only to suggest that those are moments I happen to remember; everyone in the play fits seamlessly into her place in the production.

Of course, Our Town is famous for having one challenging role, for putting one actor at the center: the Stage Manager is a role which can make or break a production.  Silk's choice of Step Taylor for the part surprised me, as I've always thought of the Stage Manager as somehow older, well past just being mature, somehow old enough to be outside the action not just because he's outside by definition but because he's seen everything: the sort of role to be taken by a Bill Hutt or Henry Fonda at the end of a career. After all, he needs to say with authority things like "You know how it is: you're twenty-one or twenty-two and you make some decisions; then whisssh! you're seventy: you've been a lawyer for fifty years and that white-haired lady at your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you."

I was used to thinking of Taylor in younger roles like Romeo or Reverend Hale in The Crucible. Surprisingly, it turns out that the Stage Manager can be a lot younger than I thought -- as long as he's prepared to take all the time in the world at his long, thoughtful reflections on time and village life and people's habits. And Taylor manages to do just that: his pacing, like that of the entire production, is slow but builds tremendous momentum. We never feel any impatience as he thinks over what he's about to say, or pauses to let what he's just said sink in. When he needs to, he commands the stage: if we need to notice him, we do. If his accent sometimes drifts a few hundred miles south of New Hampshire, that isn't nearly as important as the way what he has to say is said as though it matters to him and as though he knows it will matter to us.

There are, of course, some problems in the production: I'm not convinced that we need as much of a "soda fountain" as we get for Emily and George's courtship. That's Thornton Wilder's choice -- he's very specific about how that scene should be set up -- but one of the consequences for this production is that Emily and George are essentially tied to their seats, each with a back to half the audience, for longer than I thought comfortable.  I'm not sure how to solve it, but the scene is one of the few that feels static. And then there's the mime (patting that invisible horse, pouring that nonexistent coffee, opening that ice-cream parlor door none of us can see), which is crucial to this production, is sometimes a bit loose and sloppy (perhaps because the sound effects make it so real that the actors stop thinking they need to be really clear about just where that horse's forelock is, or just where the coffee is in the imaginary cupboard). And I'm not so sure that we need to have the choir director, Simon Stimson (Jordan Trethewey) all the way up on the top of the southeast entrance of the Box: it's the only break in the convention that the action all occurs in the sacred space in the middle (except for the rather cutesy interventions from "members of the audience"), and I'm not sure the effort pays off.

None of the problems, however, makes any significant difference: Theatre Saint Thomas' production takes a script which can easily be seen as a nostalgic, sentimental celebration of an idealized and probably mythical past, and makes it into a seductive meditation on mortality and on sentimentality itself.

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