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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

Our Town
"In 1938, Our Town had its World Premiere at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey. In 1939, Pasadena Playhouse produced one of the first regional productions of the play. Playhouse audiences walked through the courtyard, into the lobby, and found their seats. They were greeted with an empty stage, except for a solitary light. They were some of the first people to ever encounter what was to become the great American play."
— Pasadena Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman,
Deric Augustine and Sandra Mae Frank. (Photo: Jenny Graham)
Its status as an American classic notwithstanding, Thornton Wilder's Our Town is a lifeless play and not because its final act is set in a graveyard. No, the playwright and his famously unheralded residents of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire take fierce pride in the fact that their simple town is so ordinary. The fact that Grover's Corners residents live unremarkable lives, rarely leave their town and die simple deaths is occasion not for tears, but for a big "such is life" shrug. For Wilder, it's also an occasion for creating a three-act play that everyone now knows.

Unremarkable stories have their place in American drama, but Deaf West Theatre doesn't traditionally do dull. And when the company does aim low, it usually leaps at the material with a new lens, new urgency and actors whose eloquent silence makes you reconsider what you're viewing.

A sleepy play and a company with sizzle in its approach to playmaking are not the best creative match, and Sheryl Kaller's new production of Our Town, co-produced by the Pasadena Playhouse, feels boxed in rather than opened up. When Troy Kotsur, Russell Harvard and Alexandria Wailes supplying sign language translations for the play's Stage Manager/ narrator (played by Jane Kaczmarek), these actors look like they're itching to tell stories that are, frankly, far bigger than anything that would ever happen in Grover's Corners. Even Kaczmarek, an excellent and often edgy stage performer, seems trapped in the Stage Manager's congeniality.

The deft mix of hearing and signing actors notwithstanding, Kaller's production is recognizably Our Town, doing its damndest to embrace the traditional elements of Wilder's play while simultaneously bringing in Deaf West's unique strengths. Ladders, chairs and the occasional clothesline are the only furniture on David Meyer's otherwise empty stage. The exposed back wall is peeling. The players wear period-appropriate costumes (designed by Ann Closs Farley). This empty space could be any stage, anywhere in America. When teen-agers George Gibbs (Deric Augustine) and Emily Webb (Sandra Mae Frank) share their window-to-window chat under distracting moonlight, the actors are up on ladders, which the company members swirl into place.

Apart from George and Emily's gentle courtship, the Stage Manager gives us snapshot glimpses into the lives and history of some of the other residents: George's mother Mrs. Gibbs (Annika Marks) who spends her life clandestinely scheming to get her town doctor husband (Jud Williford) to take even one vacation. There's some gossiping among the ladies of the church choir, largely over the longstanding drinking habits of organist Simon Stimson (Kotsur). Teachers teach, students learn, mothers prepare meals and on it blandly goes.

The two young heroes have their dreams which also don't amount to much. He's a baseball-obsessed teen destined to run his uncle's farm and content to skip agricultural college once he realizes that Emily is the person he wants to share his life. Emily &emdash; arguably the play's conscience &emdash; loves George right back, but there is the suggestion that her dreams of "spending my life telling stories" are compromised. In the right actress's hands, her fate makes Our Town that much more of a tragedy than it might otherwise be. Deaf West has that actress. The wonderful Sandra Mae Frank (recently of Deaf West's Broadway revival of Spring Awakening) burns with that youthful fire even after she arrives at the cemetery. Emily's cosmic posthumous "consolation prize" is the realization that even life's simplest moments are endlessly beautiful. Understood, and yes, that's Wilder's mantra, but with Frank's lovely face accepting the beauty and the loss, the play feels that much more poignant. Kudos also to Sharon-Pierre Louis who voices Emily, supplying all the right joy and heartbreak.

Deaf West productions are the best opportunities to see many of these actors. Harvard, a live wire and quite dangerous Jerry in the company's recent production of Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo, is almost unrecognizable as the community pillar and town newspaper editor Mr. Webb. The always fascinating Kotsur supplies a much needed dollop of opposition as the angry town drunk Simon Stinson, a man who, even in death, is kicking back at the Grover's Corners bucolic existence.

Our Town may be a play that is in equal measure, about small town life and about the nature of existence. It is also a lesson in the art of stage craft and play-making. Deaf West Theatre has spent the last nearly 30 years illuminating this art in exciting new ways. Their next transporting journey &emdash; and ours &emdash; should be to a place with more going on than to Grover's Corners, a place where people come to die.

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Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Cast: Jane Kaczmarek, Alexandra Wailes, Troy Kotsur, Russell Harvard, Sandra Mae Frank, Sharon Pierre-Louis, Deric Augustine, Annika Marks, Jud Williford, Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, On Shiu.
Choreographer: David Dorfman
Scenic Designer: David Meyer
Costume Designer: Ann Closs Farley
Lighting Designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Sound Designers: Leon Rothenberg and Jonathan Burke
ASL Masters: Joshua Castille and Charles Katz
Production Stage Manager: Jenny Slattery
Stage Manager: Jessica R. Agilar
Plays through October 22, 2017 at the Pasadena Playhouse, EL Molino, Pasadena,
Running time: two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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