by Macey Levin
When Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town opened in 1938 it was considered experimental: a character (the Stage Manager) speaks directly to the audience, there are no sets, no props, just the actors pantomiming everything from drinking coffee to throwing newspapers, and the words, marvelous words! It is one of the classic plays in the American theatre’s canon and is performed all over the world as its message is universal. The play draws renowned actors to the stage. The most recent performances on Broadway featured Spalding Gray in 1989 and Paul Newman in 2002 as the Stage Manager.
The production of Our Town at the Sharon Playhouse, Sharon, Connecticut, is superb. Directed by Andrus Nichols, the play draws its dominant themes as it flows seamlessly from one scene to the next. She has brought a different sensitivity to the play by mining the humor in the first two acts. The third act, however, maintains the definitive thematic tones and Wilder’s wry observations of civilization.
Usually played by a man, the Stage Manager is portrayed by Jane Kaczmarek who has been nominated for Emmys, Golden Globes and S.A.G awards and is best known for television’s “Malcolm in the Middle.” She immediately creates a warm relationship with the audience bringing them into the life of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Early in the play her tone is lighter than usually played which underscores the gravitas of the third act. Her performance is comforting and intelligent.
The first act is entitled “Daily Life” where we meet some of the townspeople focusing on the Webb and Gibbs families. Mr. Webb (Richard Terhune) is the editor of the local newspaper; his wife Myrtle (Dawn Stern) is a bit of a taskmaster. Their children Emily (Samantha Steinmetz) is a teenager and Wally (Vincent Valcin) of elementary school age. Similarly, there is Dr. Gibbs (Deron Bayer) and his wife Julia (Marinell Madden-Crippen), who is understanding and sympathetic. George (Eric Bryant) is a high school student and Rebecca (Kennadi Mitchell) is somewhat younger. The actors immediately establish their characters’ likability and claim our interest.
As befitting the title of the act, the two families live similar everyday lives… working, tending the home and garden, going to school, chatting, doing homework, eating meals. Prior to this we hear a brief lecture by Professor Willard (Katherine Almquist) who places the town into historical perspective. As we meet the other inhabitants including the milkman Howie Newsome (Darius Sanchez,) Constable Warren (Jim Flaherty,) the newspaper delivery boys Joe Crowell (C.C. Stevenson) and his younger brother Si (Carter McCabe,) Mrs. Soames (Lori Evans,) the town gossip, and Simon Stimson (Michael Kevin Baldwin,) the alcoholic choir director of the church, the quotidian rhythms, though separated by time and history, are instinctively and universally recognizable.
It is during “Love and Marriage,” the second act, that George and Emily come to realize they love each other as they slurp an ice cream soda at Mr. Morgan’s soda shop, Mr. Morgan… played by the Stage Manager. There are moments when the young couple give voice to their fears as they prepare to share their lives, something that most of us have probably experienced.
Act three begins in the town cemetery when Sam Craig (Ronnie Reed) and Joe Stoddard (Will Nash Broyles) meet at a gravesite and ruminate about the coming funeral. This may be the most famous and appreciated act in American theatre history especially when Emily says, “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it-–every, every minute?” That is the line that gives the play its universality and why it has survived for eighty-five years.
Wilder’s script is often humorous and pointed in its depiction of human foibles and strengths. He has used the lives of his characters to define our own place within everyday life and the universe when the Stage Manager says, “We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses, and it ain’t names and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.” What Wilder says about life and humanity is written so simply and honestly that it continues to deliver a powerful emotional wallop while remaining intellectually stimulating.
The performances are uniformly effective. Bryant and Steinmetz as George and Emily are, at first, simply awkward teenagers. Their naivete and innocence elicit indulgent smiles as they evince their hopes for the future as well as the last minute stark terror over the enormity of their choices. They play off each other subtly but honestly. The two sets of parents – Bayer and Madden-Crippen, and Stern and Terhune are realistic as they bicker, worry and turn to each other, just as married couples do in real life. All the supporting actors deliver well-tuned performances providing the depth and credibility to the nature and soul of Grover’s Corners.
Nichols’ direction is tight and uncomplicated as she takes us into small-town life. Her cast maintains the truth of the play by representing people we all know in our daily routines. The staging flows from moment to moment creating the flavor and personality of the town. The pantomime, accompanied by few sound effects by Daryl Bornstein, is precise adding to the reality of each gesture.
TJ Greenway’s set design opens the stage all the way to the back wall of the theatre; the only set pieces at the opening are doors to the two houses. Other pieces, primarily chairs or stools, are brought onstage and removed by the cast allowing for immediate scene changes. In the cemetery, instead of the usual chairs to represent the graves, stylized swings are used creating an ethereal and ghostly quality as the dead hover between the past and eternity. Much of the atmosphere of each scene, including the use of shadows, is effectively created by Kate McGee’s lighting complemented by Dan Koch’s music. Kathleen DeAngelis’s costumes are accurate reflecting the style of the turn into the 20th century.
Our Town is a flawless play as is Sharon’s production. It is a unique opportunity to enjoy many of our Northwest Corner’s local citizens as they portray the timelessness of the human experience. See it twice!
Our Town by Thornton Wilder; Director: Andrus Nichols; Cast: Jane Kaczmarek (Stage Manager) Samantha Steinmetz (Emily Webb) Eric Bryant (George Gibbs) Dawn Stern (Mrs. Webb) Dick Terhune (Editor Webb) Vincent Valcin (Wally Webb) Marinell Madden-Crippen (Mrs. Gibbs) Deron Bayer (Doc Gibbs) Kennadi Mitchell (Rebecca Gibbs) Lori Evans (Mrs. Soames) Darius Sanchez (Howie Newsome) C.C. Stevenson (Joe Crowell Jr.) Carter McCabe (Si Crowell) Michael Kevin Baldwin (Simon Stimson) Katherine Almquist (Professor Willard) Jim Flaherty (Constable Warren) Ronnie Reed (Sam Craig) Will Nash Broyles (Joe Stoddard) Celia A. Calvo (Ensemble/Pianist) Ensemble: Darcy Boynton, John Champion, Andy Delgado, Emily Soell, Savannah Stevenson; Associate Director: Drew Ledbetter; Set Design: TJ Greenway; Lighting Design: Kate McGee; Sound Design: Daryl Bornstein; Costume Design: Kathleen DeAngelis; Music: Dan Koch; Movement: Kimiye Corwin; Production Manager: Chanler Sharpe; Technical Director: Nate Zwart; Stage Manager: Melissa A. Nathan; Assistant Stage Manager: Jennie Davies; Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes – one intermission – brief pause between Acts Two and Three; August 15 – August 24; 49 Amenia Rd., Route 343, Sharon, CT 06069; 860-364-7469; firstname.lastname@example.org