Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Spellbinding Naturalistic Production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town
Our Town is certainly one of the greatest American plays ever written. The drama saw the light of day at the Henry Miller's Theatre on February 1, 1938 with Frank Craven playing the Stage Manager, Martha Scott making her Broadway debut as Emily, and Frank's son John Craven as George. The first time I saw the play was at the ANTA Playhouse in November 1969 with Henry Fonda playing the role of the Stage Manager. That production boasted an all-star cast, with Harvey Evans playing George and Elizabeth Hartman playing Emily, plus some of the great acting names of stage and screen, including Ed Begley, John Beal, Margaret Hamilton and John Randolph. There was a brief revival in 1988 with the late Spalding Gray playing the manager. It was later televised by PBS.
Our Town had a wonderful revival in 2002 with Paul Newman playing the Stage Manager, which was later televised for PBS. ACT did a great production several years back with Peter Donat as the manager and Annette Benning playing Emily. Wilder's play was also put on film around 1939 with Frank Craven and Martha Scott repeating their roles, and a young William Holden playing George. There also was a television musical production called Love and Marriage with Frank Sinatra playing the manager.
Wilder's classic drama has been called America's most read and most produced play. Thousands of high school and regional productions has been presented to the public. Time has not reduced its compelling blend of nostalgia and small time life in America in the early 20th century. The play tells of the lives of the town's citizens from 1901 to 1913 with the plot centering around Emily Webb (Lauren English) and George Gibbs (Ashkon Davaran), high school teenagers who court and marry. The first act takes place over the course of a single day, May 7, 1901. The second act culminates in the wedding of the two people, and the third act transports us to the town cemetery nine years later.
Director Bill English has assembled a superb cast in which the Stage Manager (Wanda McCaddon) testifies to the artfulness and value of the routine daily activities of the citizens of the small New Hampshire town. The beautiful wedding scene in act two, in which the characters use the complete theatre, is breathtaking, while the dead souls in act three emphasize the theme of humanity, chastising the living for their "ignorance" and "blindness."
Our Town's large cast is marvelous, with each of the actors contributing to a naturalistic performance. Lauren English as Emily emerges as the primary articulator of the themes of the play. She is vibrant as the young girl. Her speech in the second act about punishing the living for not appreciating the simple things of life is an amazing performance. Ashkon Davaran gives a compelling performance as the archetypal All American boy. He displays an exceptional confusion, both during the soda fountain scene and as he receives some nonsensical advice from the future father-in-law.
Bill English could not have chosen a better actress then Wanda McCaddon for the Stage Manager. She is splendid in the role, both strong and instantly likeable. Her performance is like cold steel as she leads the audience into each scene. Ms. Caddon reminds me very much of Elaine Stritch in appearance and manner. Most of the other roles are modest ones; however, all make the most of their roles, such as Keith Burkland and Eshter Mulligan as Dr. Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs, and Patrick Sieler and Susi Damilano as Mr. and Mrs. Webb. All give superlative performances. China Raven-Crawford as George's youngest sister makes the most of her small role, especially in the classic scene about a letter that has been written to a citizen in the small town. She is first class in the role.
Bill English's direction is tight and fast-paced, especially in the first act. There is no scenery and only a minimum of furniture. Jon Retsky does an excellent job of lighting as he sets the mood for each scene. The audience is not likely to go home without feeling the effects of this delicate play. This is one of the best productions of Wilde's classic that I have ever seen.
Our Town runs through Saturday December 18th at their playhouse located at 536 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained at TicketWeb.com, TIX box office on Union Square or at the Theatre's box office. For reservations call 415-677-9596 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Their next production is Monster by Neal Bell and it opens on February 11th.