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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Macey Levin
One of the major plays of the American theatre, and one of the most mistreated, is Thornton Wilder's deceptively simple Our Town. In his review of the opening in the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Mr. Wilder has given it (the play) a profound, strange unworldly significance, this is less the portrait of a town than the sublimation of the commonplace; and in contrast with the universe that silently swims around it, it is brimming over with compassion."
Whether as a standard in high schools or with professional casts, many productions often drip with treacly sentimentality. The current offering at the Connelly Theatre avoids this approach until its last moments. What precedes those last scenes maintains the simplicity and insightfulness that Wilder created. There is also an interesting variation in the production's basic concept.
Director Jack Cummings III has written, "I wanted to see what I (and audiences) could learn from the play if seen through the wisdom and age of two older actors while they are playing younger people". Therefore, he has cast middle-age actors Tom Ligon and Barbara Andres as George and Emily, and the Stage Manager is portrayed by Emma Orelove, a teen-ager. "A child brings a sincerity and innocence that opens the role up and allows the character to become involved in a way that I think is quite new to the play," says Cummings III. Another element of his reasoning is that we, in 2002, are different from the populace of 1938 and that audiences would no longer easily accept "an older white male lecturing to them on the ways of the world with a nod and a wink."
Does it work? Sometimes. The acting by the three, as well as the rest of the cast, is intelligent and often touching, though Orelove sometimes sounds as if she were reciting lines. There is a sweet, almost angelic, quality to her that brings a glowing innocence to the part and adds a dimension to the work that a graying actor may no longer possess. But one wonders, especially in the third act, where this character has found the wisdom that permeates the dialogue. The actress holds the stage and gives intelligent readings throughout, including the several memorable monologues.
Despite the obvious and sometimes disquieting age disparity between Ligon and Andres with their respective parents and siblings, they portray George and Emily's youth without being cloying or overly clichèd. There are moments when they seem to be trying to be young rather than simply allowing the characters to exist. The contrast of age and dialogue creates unusual images and as one reflects on the production, there are lines that are more pointed due to the age difference. However, the layering of their years over the characters as written, does not appreciably alter the impact of Wilder's words and observations.
Many of the secondary roles are performed with an understanding of Wilder's intent: James Weber and Julie Siefkes as Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs, Jeff Edgerton and Robyn Hussa as the Webbs are warm and stern as they struggle to be proper parents, though Hussa is occasionally too shrill; John Wellmann's Simon Stimson elicits sympathy and Monica Russell as Mrs. Soames is amusing and touching. Richard Martin, Carl Palmer and Jonathan Uffelman in minor roles add immeasurably to the strength of the production.
There is no question this is the director's production. Cummings III introduces several innovative turns that enhance the nature of the play. He has effectively utilized music that has been directed, arranged and written by Mary-Mitchell Campbell for piano, cellist Audrey Terry and vocalist Jenni Frost. A musical and spoken overture has also been introduced that creates a tone for the ensuing work. The cast remains onstage for the entire piece, suggesting a microcosm and becoming an integral part of the complete action; they also create various sound effects. The staging is seamless, creating outstanding stage images that propel the production forward. Cummings III has, however, allowed the last scenes, beginning with Emily's return to earth, to become melodramatic contradicting the simplicity with which the previous minutes have been imbued.
John Story's set is similar to the corral in Peter Shaffer's Equus; it is a platform surrounded by a railing on three sides and chairs along the perimeter of the platform creating an insular world. The surrounding space is open to the wings and the flies suggesting the cosmos. Story uses projections as atmospheric backdrops to suggest the changing of seasons and locales. His work is deftly complemented by R. Lee Kennedy's effective lighting. The costumes, designed by Kathryn Rohe, are, fittingly, of basic earth tones, except for the blue ribbon Emily cannot find on her 12th birthday. This ribbon is given symbolic significance early in the production by Rohe and Cummings III.
Wilder's play cautions us to appreciate the opportunity to live a life in a highly imperfect world amidst a mysterious universe that probably does not even acknowledge our existence. Despite some inconsistencies, this is a superlative production of a great American classic that wisely communicates its author's lessons.
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