April 23, 2003


Our Town

reviewed by
Chris Jensen


























For more about Chris, please visit her main page on ArtSavant.

Triad Stage in Greensboro, recently named one of America’s 50 Best Regional Theatres by the Drama League, is presenting Thornton Wilder’s Our Town through May 4. Written in 1938, the play marked a milestone in the development of American theatre by rejecting the trappings of realism -- things like scenery and props. Triad Stage further abandoned the trappings of realism with its imaginative casting -- a woman dressed in men’s clothing for the Stage Manager (narrator) role and a multi-racial cast that played against stereotypes of a small New England towns in the early 1900s.

This is how the production began on April 16, one night after the play’s official opening: With the rear wall of the backstage area completely exposed, a topsy-turvy heap of wooden chairs occupied the center of the stage. With the houselights still up and audience members still chatting, the actors entered one by one, dressed in period costumes. Each gingerly disentangled a chair from the center heap, then placed it, facing inward, around the perimeter of the performance space and sat down.

Once all of the chairs were in place and occupied by actors, Rae C. Wright, already in costume as the Stage Manager, proceeded with a laundry list of preshow announcements. (First-time visitor? Want to buy season tickets? Would this evening’s Our Town Hero please come forward? Turn off cell phones and unwrap candy, etc.)

Someone other than a central cast member probably should have made the requisite announcements. Why? Because they were delivered in a lively, high-pitched voice that contrasted abruptly with the deep and earnest tone that Wright assumed as Stage Manager. Since first impressions tend to last, the audience might not have made the mental transition as quickly as the actor did. Unfortunately, Wright also flubbed a few lines early in the performance. As the evening progressed, though, she hit her stride and effectively ushered the audience’s collective imagination across time and space in Grover’s Corners.

Robert Beatty played Doc Gibbs with strength and tenderness. As his wife, Nicole Halmos delivered one of the strongest performances. The scene in Act 1 (Daily Life) when Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb swap dreams and marital advice while snapping beans, evoked a perfect mix of humor, frustration and longing. Elisabeth Ritson effectively conveyed Mrs. Webb’s pride, modesty and energetic efficiency. Both women mimed their daily chores so well that you soon saw the woodstove, the tabletop and the kitchen utensils -- even though there were none to see.

But one of the most memorable performances was delivered by Harry S. Murphy as Mr. Webb. Murphy was always believable -- in affectionate moments with his family, in awkward moments with his soon-to-be son-in-law, and in humorous moments where his deadpan delivery and impeccable timing lightened the mood.

And though they looked their parts -- with their youthful, well-scrubbed good looks -- Nathan Anderson as George Gibbs and Caitlin Van Hecke as Emily Webb were less than convincing as the young couple whose lives are central to the play. In Acts 1 and 2, Van Hecke delivered her lines with such speed that often they were incomprehensible. And Anderson, despite his strong vocal delivery, seemed a little uncomfortable in his character.

The star of the show was in fact the staging. The intimate performance space, created less than two years ago from an abandoned department store, seats 300 around a thrust stage. Most of the audience occupied the raked seating directly in front of the stage; only a few were seated at the sides.

Director Preston Lane obviously knows how to use the thrust performance space to its fullest advantage. Throughout the performance, actors entered and exited via multiple paths at multiple levels -- through the audience, up the stairs, out from a corner, in from the upstage wings.

John Wolf’s lighting design was subtle yet powerful throughout the entire production, the sort of lighting that creatively moves the story forward, as opposed to lighting that screams, "Look at the special lighting effects!" Wolf and scenic designer Alexander Dodge had some surprises in store for the second and third acts.

During the intermission before Act 2 (Love and Marriage), reflective panels that extended from floor to ceiling were positioned upstage. Gothic window shapes were projected on the panels for the wedding scene, and when the script referred to "all the ancestors," audience members in the raked seating were lit, their reflections suddenly filling the tall rear panels. And for Act 3 (Life and Death), the panels were reversed to reveal doors and also to function as a reflective scrim that was used in a powerful way during the final act.

So how does a 21st century audience relate to Our Town? Given the mobility of American families today, the majority of people reading this review probably are not living in the same town where they were born, got married and expect to be buried. Despite this difference, Our Town still succeeds in conveying the universality of "little moments in this miracle of life" (Lane’s director’s notes). Take, for example, the mild level of chaos that exists in the Gibbs and Webb households between the time the children get out of bed and leave for school; or the church choir director’s alcoholism and depression; or Mrs. Gibbs’ long-delayed dream of traveling to Paris with her husband. For better or for worse, many of us can relate all too well.

Chris Jensen, April 23, 2003

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