Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Our Town: Moving Revival of Timeless American Classic
Also see Bob's review of Marisol
More than 75 years after it burst upon the American stage, it seems clear that Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town so truly and precisely illuminates the essence of the human condition that it will remain a fresh, revelatory and moving experience for theatergoers for countless generations to come.
The setting is Grover's Corners, a small fictional town in New Hampshire. The play is narrated by the Stage Manager, a folksy, quietly professorial type who speaks directly to the audience and the other players. The stage setting is bare and open to the backstage wall, and minimal stage furniture is employed.
The first act is titled "The Daily Life" and spans the course of a day in May, 1901. Principally, it centers on the Gibbs and Webb families, each with two children. Dr. Frank Gibbs is the always-on-call town doctor. Charles Webb is the publisher and editor of the town newspaper. George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the older children, attend high school together. When we first see them, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are preparing breakfast and exhorting their children to get ready for school. It is a typical and uneventful day. However, as we observe these families and several other townsfolk throughout this day, we get a strong sense of their lives and community.
The second act is titled "Love and Marriage." Three years have passed, and it is now the day that Emily Webb and George Gibbs are getting married. At one point, at the Stage Manager's request, Emily and George re-enact for us a scene from the day on which they first knew that they were in love and would marry.
The third act titled "Death and Eternity" is set on a sad day nine years after the wedding. It contains metaphysical elements which may be troubling to some. Much more importantly, it looks unflinchingly at aspects of day to day existence, which is heartbreaking in its keenly observed truth.
Director David Esbjornson has employed an open thrust stage to eliminate any separation between the production and the audience. The continuum which he creates makes our space feel a part of Grover's Corners. This effect is heightened when scenes overlap into various areas of the auditorium. This feeling of being within Grover's Corners reaches its most satisfying, inclusive apogee during the wedding ceremony of Emily and George. We are in that New England church as the wedding party enters from the rear doors, and Mrs. Soames, that gossipy annoying church lady sits in the third row (in a chair placed next to an aisle seat) and, seeking attention and approval, loudly cries and gushes to the person next to her about what a beautiful wedding it is.
Set designer Riccardo Hernandez and lighting designer Scott Zielinski have added small lightbulbs hanging down from the ceiling above the stage and auditorium which, when gently lit during the last part of the third act, nicely enhance the sense of an expansive universe.
Boyd Gaines is a perfectly relaxed, gently ironic, perfectly underplayed Stage Manager. Despite his folksy demeanor, the Stage Manager has opinions, is sophisticated, and does not suffer fools gladly. However, while we get to catch glimpses of this, he will not let it get in the way of his gentlemanly gentleness. It is not an unusual interpretation, for this is how Thornton Wilder has written the role. However, Gaines has got it down perfectly. Also notice that, while Gaines is the softest spoken person on stage, his enunciation and projection are such that every one of his words is clearly heard.
Gaines is well supported by an excellent ensemble cast. Kati Brazda (Mrs. Gibbs), Kathleen McNenny (Mrs. Webb), Sean Cullen (Dr. Gibbs), Lee Sellars (Mr. Webb), Aaron Ballard (Emily Webb), Pico Alexander (George Gibbs), Matthew Lawler (Simon Stimpson), and Wally Dunn (Professor Willard) lead an ensemble whose everyday simplicity completes Wilder's creations. The exception is the role of Mrs. Soames, well delineated by Mary McLain, who cuts across the gentler grain of Wilder's other characters.
To my taste, there are two missteps in the production. The three-act play is performed with just one intermission after the second act. It is understandable as it serves today's less patient audiences. However, it reduces the effect of a first act whose curtain leaves us with much to savor, and reduces the specialness of that golden day which comprises the second act. It felt to me that some small cuts have been made in the process, but my memory is such that I cannot state that definitively. Most importantly, the play feels rushed in its transition into two acts. The other misstep is the incorporation of a ghostly, echo sound during the third act. This is an inappropriate gimmick that disturbs the simple beauty of the writing.
Our Town is the first collaboration between George Street Playhouse and its prestigious next door neighbor, Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University (where director David Esbjornson is the chair of the theatre department). George Street Playhouse Artistic Director David Saint has written that "The impetus behind this venture was to allow us to do large cast classic plays while allowing the most talented graduates of Mason Gross to work side-by-side with seasoned professional actors from New York." The George Street - Mason Gross initiative is off to an impressive start with this production of Thornton Wilder's masterpiece Our Town with a large gifted cast of superbly integrated actors .
Our Town continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday - Saturday (except 5/21, 5/22) 8 pm/ Sunday (except 5/4, 5/18) 7 pm / Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (except 5/8, 5/17, 5/22) through May 25, 2014, at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online: www.GSPonline.org.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder; directed by David Esbjornson