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Theater Review: ‘Our Town’ Is Brilliantly Relevant

Thursday, October 15, 2015
Thornton Wilder began his 1938 play Our Town with some of the most famous stage direction in the American theater: “No curtain. No scenery.”

His minimalist ethos stripped away the drama to its essentials — a stage, actors, words, light and the audience.

In Northern Stage’s production of Our Town , which runs through Oct. 31 at the recently opened Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, another factor comes into play: the new theater itself. Which is why Our Town is the natural, maybe inevitable, choice to initiate only the second new theater built in the Upper Valley since the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s.

First, of course, Our Town is a New England play, set in the fictional small town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., in the early 1900s, where Emily Webb and George Gibbs fall in love and get married.

And Our Town insists on a lack of artifice, both in its pared-down staging and in the person of the Stage Manager, who speaks directly to the audience much as an interlocutor does. Its emotional transparency — no hidden meanings, no brooding silences and its spare, realistic dialogue — is its greatest asset. The play itself brings the White River Junction audience directly into the theater and onto the stage.

As a consequence, Our Town also invites the audience to take in the new theater’s high ceiling, capacious space, generously-proportioned seating and the acoustics that weed out extraneous sound. The lighting and sound booths are farther removed from the stage than they were at the Briggs Opera House, so they are less of a distraction.

The point is that if you’re going to build a new theater you want it to serve the drama, not the other way around. What does $9 million in the latest in theater technology look like? It looks, and sounds, like this.

I’ll confess that I am probably one of the few people who’d never read the play or seen a production of Our Town, not on film or television, not even in high school.

Our Town chronicles the lives of the Gibbs and Webb families, who are next-door neighbors. They’re not poor, but they’re not rich. Doc Gibbs keeps the townspeople healthy, when he can; Charles Webb, editor of the daily paper, tells the townspeople what he thinks they ought to know. Julia Gibbs frets about her husband’s exhausting schedule and wishes he would listen to her more. Myrtle Webb gets on with life.

George Gibbs, the oldest son, isn’t so much interested in school, fritters away his time playing baseball, and wants to farm. Emily Webb is the smartest kid in her class. There’s the town drunk, Simon Stimson, who also happens to be a minister in church.

For a pre-World War II audience, the early 1900s-setting wasn’t so far removed in time; nor was it far removed in geography; audiences then likely had more direct experience with rural life, through family or their own upbringing, than audiences do today.

But can Our Town retain its meaning and impact in the face of such an immense technological and cultural divide between pre-war, 20th century America and the yawping, splintered 21st century, un-united United States of America?

I was prepared for a genial, folksy charm, which the play has. I was also prepared for what I thought might be a dated sentimentality, a pitfall of which Wilder was certainly aware and did his best to deflect in the person of the Stage Manager, whose understated, subtly acid observations about Grover’s Corners cut away at any temptation to give the play a purely nostalgic Currier and Ives burnish.

But I was unprepared for the play’s stunning third act, which is where Wilder made an enormous leap from what might have been no more than a dated curiosity, completely of its era, to the profoundly universal.

Here the mundane details of family and town life that Wilder so carefully lays out for us in the first two acts—the casual conversations, the automatic human gestures — are redeemed in a series of rapid, almost cinematic, unforgettable, tableaux vivants or living pictures.

I don’t think I’m giving away the store by revealing that Emily, now George’s wife, dies in childbirth and is dispatched to the hillside cemetery overlooking the town, where she meets the townsfolk who have died before her. They sit in rows, staring straight ahead, like stern churchgoers. She begs to be allowed to go back for one day, but is warned against it. It won’t do her any good, she’s told. She prevails and chooses to go back to see her 12th birthday.

Oh, the heartbreak of seeing herself as a young girl with all her promise, now denied, and the poignancy of watching her parents and younger brother joking around, blissfully ignorant of the tragedies that await them.

Directed beautifully by Northern Stage’s artistic director Carol Dunne, Our Town has an exceptional cast that is a mix of professionals and local amateur actors.

Sutton Crawford, who has been in three previous Northern Stage productions, captures all of Emily’s smarts and exuberance, her joyousness and openness, and then her pained acceptance of a new reality.

It’s a smaller moment, but there’s a scene where a teenage Emily stares out her window at the moon, while George, across the way, does the same. The actors are perched atop stepladders, and Crawford stares out into space with such palpable yearning and intensity, marveling at the beauty of the world, that you can’t help but absorb her wonder.

Casey Predovic, as George, is a find. Finding a younger actor who can persuasively play a dreamy, naive adolescent living in 1900s rural New England, without resorting to condescension or knowing winks, is no small thing. Predovic, in his first appearance with Northern Stage, provides a natural foil to the high spirits of Crawford’s Emily.

As Julia Gibbs, Amy Tribbey catches her character’s insecurities and anxiety, her pride in being a small-town wife and mother, and her frustration that she is probably doomed never to achieve her fondest wish, to see Paris. Christian Kohn, as Doc Gibbs, epitomizes the man’s decency and integrity, and also his obtuseness where his wife is concerned.

As Charles Webb, the newspaper editor, Jamie Horton strikes the right notes of mildly jaundiced skepticism, acerbic humor and, in his scenes with Crawford, the kind of paternal affection and wisdom that make their scenes very affecting. Amanda Rafuse, in the role of Myrtle Webb, Emily’s mother, has a no-nonsense, pragmatic humor and generosity.

Jarvis Green, as the dyspeptic Simon Stimson, has a few lines of pointed dialogue that he makes the most of, but more to the point, he has a memorable, agonizingly slow exit from the stage that conveys, in a way that no dialogue could, that there is often a heavy price to be paid for so much small town intimacy, so much judgment, so much knowledge.

As the Stage Manager, John Hutton has a deep-voiced gravitas, a self-deprecating manner and an easy way of letting important lines sit lightly before they sink in.

In the smaller roles of Howie Newsome, the milkman, and Mrs. Louella Soames, the town gossip, David Anzuelo and Danielle Cohen, respectively, make vivid impressions. The rest of the cast ably rounds out Wilder’s assortment of townspeople.

Eight years before Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman debuted on Broadway, Wilder urged us, to paraphrase Miller, that attention must be paid. How lucky we are to be alive; and how little we know it, except when life forces the realization on us.

Our Town continues at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction through Oct. 31. For tickets and information go to northernstage.org or call the Box Office at 802-296-7000.



Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.




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