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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The classic American drama rightfully remains a perennial favorite of audiences everywhere and evidently for all time. Even arriving a year after the widely celebrated anniversary, this production can claim a number of distinctions of its own. Most importantly it marks the theater's first collaboration with the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. It is also proudly proclaiming that the key and central role of the narrator is being played Boyd Gaines, one of America's finest and most lauded actors. But more on Mr. Gaine's memorable performance later.
So, as she has been doing these many years, Emily Gibbs nee Webb, the young wife who has recently died during childbirth and is buried in the hilltop cemetery in Grover's Corners, is preparing once again to visit her parents' home in the small New Hampshire town that seems to exist within a galaxy of stars, thanks to the imaginative work of designers Riccardo Hernandez (setting) and Scott Zielinski (lighting).
Those hundreds of stars, actually tiny bulbs that hang impressively from the rafters throughout the entire auditorium, give the illusion that Grover's Corners has been assigned an eternal resting place in the cosmos. Except for the use of two tables, some chairs and a pair of ladders for decor, that is about all the affectation and pretention that defines this stunning production, under the direction of David Esbjornson. The play's famous minimalism remains as it should, but rarely has it been so beautifully embraced.
What a good move it was by Esbjornon, New York and internationally renowned and now Chair of the Rutgers theater program, to pick Boyd Gaines (whom he directed in Driving Miss Daisy in London and Australia)to head the cast. He is an ingratiating host in Grover's Corners. Clad in black, and soft-peddling the New Hampshire drawl, there is nothing somber about him or in his casual manner as he interacts as winningly with the audience as he does on occasion with the folk of Grover's Corners.
Whether you have seen many or no other productions of Our Town , it is the simplest approach that seems to work the best, allowing the ritualistic-stylistic conformity of the text to pave the way for characters to stand out and affect you emotionally. It doesn't take long to feel Esbjornson's imprint in the splendid performances by a company that has been notably enhanced with graduates and undergraduates from the acting program at Rutgers. From the pros to the young up-and-coming actors all radiate as one cohesive and polished ensemble: Collectively they are bringing an air of freshness to the text.
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, 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. Our Town'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.
Emily's romance with the half-petrified, half-ardent George is unquestionably the heart of the play. Strawberry blonde Aaron Ballard is a wonderful Emily, just pretty and spunky enough to win the heart of the awkwardly romantic George, winningly played by Pico Alexander.
The sentimental portions of the play are balanced with humorous bits. We are, as always, amused by Professor Willard's (Wally Dunn) unintentionally funny lecture on the geological history of Grover's Corners. Matthew Lawler stumbles about more tragically than ever 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 (Sean Cullen) and Mrs. Gibbs (Kati Brazda) and also Emily's parents, Editor Webb (Lee Sellars) and Mrs. Webb (Kathleen McNenny). If the play reveals anything significant about life it is that our labors and our loves are all that really matter in the short time we are here.
The role of the Stage Manager has been played by many notables on New York stages since Frank Craven played him in the original 1938 production (as well as in the 1940 film version that featured William Holden as George). Henry Fonda played him in the 1969 Broadway revival, as did Spalding Gray in the 1988 Lincoln Center revival and Paul Newman in a Broadway revival in 2002. I am so pleased to say that Boyd Gaines's performance is among the best and one that you don't want to miss.
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