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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Our Town

People are meant to go through life two by two. 'Tain't natural to be lonesome. — Stage Manager
Our Town
James Michael Reilly and Nisi Sturgis (photo credit is Gerry Goodstein)
The Halloween season presumably puts one in the mood for visiting a grave where dead spirits are known to get restless, this by either turning over or perhaps knowing that it is traditionally the time of year to climb out and scare the living. I suspect, however, that it isn't Halloween when Emily Gibbs nee Webb, the young wife who has recently died during childbirth and is now buried in the hilltop cemetery in Grover's Corners, is not ready to settle down just yet and makes a short visit to her parent's home in Grover's Corners.

The more likely reason for Emily's ghostly appearance is to take part in the seventy-fifth anniversary celebration of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town now at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Although I presume that many regional theaters across the country will be participating in the celebration, it is good to be reminded that Our Town had its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton in 1938.

If this respectful production, under the direction of Joseph Discher, doesn't affix to the play any particular signature embellishment (as was afforded it in a highly acclaimed re-imagined staging by Chicago-based director David Cromer Off-Broadway in 2008, in which Cromer also played the Stage Manager), it does spruce up a bit what is generally regarded as the play's famous minimalism.

Upon entering, the audience sees what appears to be the back brick wall of a theater, most likely of summer-stock-in-a-barn vintage as the barn doors are prominent. The pulleys, weights, and ropes are hanging from the rafters. A few ladders are leaning against the wall and there is the obligatory ghost light gleaming in anticipation of the arrival of the Stage Manager.

Daylight and morning will come as soon as will a couple of tables and chairs, even a pair of identical trellised garden doors that lead to the neighboring Gibbs's and Webb's homes. The white-haired and immediately ingratiating Stage Manager (Philip Goodwin) addresses us. He has the New Hampshire drawl down pat in his role as narrator/guide into small-town New England Americana at the turn-of-the-century.

What is so remarkable is that no matter how sophisticated we think we are today, or how immune we are to experiencing real emotion in the theater, Wilder's quietly poetic masterpiece, when allowed to reside in its own unique aura, dares to ignore our smarts.

It is also striking how certain landmark plays have a way of impressing different generations and audiences, let alone directors and actors, in completely different ways. In the best of all Wilder worlds, one hopes to get an unabashedly familiar but blatantly honest look at the town's inhabitants from the outside while the play addresses us on the inside.

The play's immortality lies in the courageousness of its conviction that the wonder and drama of birth, life, and death can be as powerfully gripping for the non-heroic inhabitants of Grover's Corners as for any character in a classical Greek tragedy.

Every director of Our Town has a responsibility to keep the life in Grover's Corner earnestly simple and touching. If director Discher might be praised for taking the strictly reverential course, he can also be faulted for guiding the actors into a one-dimensional reality that leaves no room for a breath of fresh air. Yet, however we are inclined or willing to respond to this approach, the actors keep the faith with performances that at best can be called ritualistic-stylistic conformity.

Emily's romance with the half-petrified, half-ardent George is unquestionably the heart of the play. Nisi Sturgis, as the spunky Emily, is blonde and exceptionally pretty with expressive eyes that glisten effectively in response to the good-looking George's awkward romantics. As George, Jordan Coughtry works on his image of wholesomeness to excess, but what else is there for him to do?

The sentimental portions of the play are balanced with humorous bits. We always are amused by Glenn Beatty's unintentionally funny lecture, as Professor Willard, on the geological history of Grover's Corners. A dour Mark H. Dold stumbles about believably as the play's most inscrutable character Simon Stimson, the church's suicidal music maestro aka the town drunk.

The soul of Grover's Corners is reflected in George's parents, Dr. Gibbs (Malachy Cleary) and Mrs. Gibbs (Marion Adler) and also Emily's parents, Editor Webb (James Michael Reilly) and Mrs. Webb (Allison Daughety). Notable is the funnily nuanced performance by Reilly, who is celebrating his twenty-first season with the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. If the play teaches or rewards us anything, it is that living and loving are all that really matters in the short time we are here. Aside from the Off-Broadway production cited above, the role of the Stage Manager has been played by many notables on New York stages. Frank Craven played the stage manager in the original 1938 production (as well as in the 1940 film version that featured William Holden as George). Henry Fonda played the stage manager in the 1969 Broadway revival, as did Spalding Gray in the 1988 Lincoln Center revival and Paul Newman in a Broadway revival in 2002.

Our Town
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Joseph Discher

Cast: Philip Goodwin (Stage Manager), Malachy Cleary (Dr. Gibbs), Jeff Gonzales (Joe Crowell), Jake Berger (Howie Newsome), Marion Adler (Mrs. Gibbs), Allison Daugherty (Mrs. Webb), Jordan Coughtry (George Gibbs), Rebecca Gray Davis (Rebecca Gibbs), Isaac Allen Miler (Wally Gibbs), Nisi Stugis (Emily Gibbs), Glenn Beatty (Professor Willard, Man among the Dead), James Michael Reilly (Mr. Webb), Mark H. Dold (Simon Stimson), Eileen Glenn (Mrs. Soames), Terence Gleeson (Constable Warren), Jeff Gonzalez (Si Cromwell), Justin R. Waldo (Sam Craig), Joseph Hamel (Joe Stoddard), Jean Burton Walker (A Woman Among the Dead), Edward McEneaney (Mr. Carter)
Scenic Designer: Charlie Calvert
Costume Designer: Candida Nichols
Lighting Designer: Matthew Adelson
Dialect Coach: Diego Daniel Pardo
Sound Designer: Joseph Discher
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including two intermission
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison NJ.
(973) - 408 - 5600
Tickets: $35.00 to $70.00 student rush tickets $15.00 30 minutes before curtain.
Performances: Tuesday, Wednesdays and Sundays at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.
From 10/17/13 Opened 10/19/13 Ends 11/17/13
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/20/13

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