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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Moving Our Town, But Why the Puppets?

Also see Bob's review of Stick Fly

Our Town
Wynn Harmon, Joe Binder,
Stephen D’Ambrose and Erin Weaver

The Two River Theatre in Red Bank has made an excellent choice in selecting Thornton Wilder's Our Town to inaugurate its 2007-2008 season. This quintessential 1938 American masterpiece is a deeply moving piece of Americana which strips away the modernity and sophistication of our civilization to celebrate basic values of family and community, and the glorious rebirth each new morning brings to us. The values which Our Town celebrates are so primal and fulfilling that no matter how technologically advanced and cynical we may become, Our Town will always touch our hearts and minds.

The three-act play is set in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners in 1901, 1904 and 1913. Designed to be performed with minimal scenery and props, it is narrated by the Stage Manager who is our warm and comfortable guide to the town, its geography and its people. In addition to spelling out details of time and place, the Stage Manager poignantly fills in the then future histories of the townsfolk and explains the structure of each of the acts. Through the prism of the lives of two normal, seemingly unremarkable families (the truth that Wilder shows us is that no loving family is unremarkable), Wilder demonstrates the wondrousness of our lives. One family is that of the kindly town doctor, Frank Gibbs, his wife Julia, and their children George and Rebecca. The other is that of the town's newspaper editor, Charles Webb, his wife Myrtle, and their children, Emily and Wally. Act one is called "Daily Life." In it, we see both families prepare their children for school. We observe the blossoming of the relationship between the older children George and Emily. We meet some of the other town folk and view a small handful of ordinary happenings such as church choir practice. Act two is called "Love and Marriage." It chronicles events of the day three years later when George and Emily were married. It includes a short flashback to the conversation between them which made them realized that they were destined to marry. Act three is called "Death." It depicts a funeral. Surely, it is very sad. It is also beautiful and inspirational. Those who have seen it will never forget it. Those who have not should experience it without any foreknowledge of its content.

It is hardly likely that anyone will not be deeply moved as director Aaron Posner, abetted by a subtle and sensitive cast, has preserved the essentials of this classic American play. However, Posner has employed a concept which places a hurdle in our path to the heart of the play. Although the Stage Manager, Doc and Mrs. Gibbs, Editor and Mrs. Webb, and their older children, George and Emily are played by flesh and blood actors, the younger children, Rebecca and Wally, and a dozen additional townsfolk are represented by cutesy, I would estimate four-foot high, 2/3 life sized Bunraku puppets. Although one or another of the live actors mouth their words (most often the stage manager), and often act out their actions (at times, an actor's limbs are tied to the puppets and the actor physically acts out all of its movements). Actually, the doubling, tripling and quadrupling actors portray the townsfolk better than the puppets do. It is, after all, the actors' mouths that are moving. The puppets, designed by Aaron Cromie, are, at times, evocative and amusing, but when they are placed within the Gibbs and Webb families (Rebecca and Wally), they are out of place and most distracting.

I sought in vain to find an artistic reason for director Aaron Posner's decision to employ puppets. The closest that I could come was that they could be intended to visually illustrate how far from their living selves the dead in the cemetery had become. It is a theme of the play that there is an insurmountable gap between the dead and the living. However, this explanation fell short for me. In a program note, Posner offers that the puppets are intended to "blow a little dust off" the world of Grover's Corners, and "engage, provoke and entertain us." Mr. Posner's desire to do this for us will surely yield riches in the future when his innovations rise from insights gleaned either from within a work or which can be effectively imposed upon it. However, the employment of puppets here is as arbitrary (although surely less distracting) as performing Our Town au naturel.

Doug Hara is a young Stage Manager, less folksy than we are accustomed to seeing. His unadorned, direct approach to the role works well and is in nice contrast to the mellifluous chorus of voices and intonations which he provides in vocally portraying the supporting townsfolk.

There is a nice distinction between the parental Gibbs and Webbs. The Gibbs are more folksy than the spiffier and younger appearing Webbs. Stephen D'Ambrose's Doc Gibbs is extremely warm and avuncular. Maureen Silliman conveys an achingly caring and careworn Julia Gibbs. Wynn Harmon's Editor Webb is a bit jaunty, and a bit ill at ease in having to effect the gravity expected by George in his incipient father-in-law. Lisa Gunn embodies a mother of the bride who knows that she is attractive and rues the passing of the attentions which came her way when she was nubile.

Similarly, there is a nice contrast in the performances of Joe Binder and Erin Weaver as George and Emily. Binder is softer, an easygoing farm boy who is dazzled by the studious, unfussy and more animated Emily.

Emily Pepper's fine costumes are impeccable. Aleksandra Maslik's set is nicely designed with a full stage soft purple skim at the rear, but it has a bit too much brightness for my taste. This is particularly so in the third act, when the greensward covering the large stage contrasts with the somber tone of the script.

It is gratifying to see a three-act play presented with two proper intermissions. I cannot remember if this has always been the case in recent revivals of Our Town, but I have seen too many revivals of three-act plays in recent years marred by one arbitrary, inappropriate intermission in the middle of the second act, or alternatively (and less disastrously) with only a short pause after either the first or second acts in lieu of a second intermission.

Thanks to a fine cast and sensitive direction, Two River's production of Our Town captures the heart of this timeless classic play. If you can attend this production and not be moved to tears, then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

Our Town continues performances (Eves: Wed. – Sat. 8 P.M../Mats: Wed. 1 P.M> /Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m. through September 30, 2007 at the Two River Theatre Company,21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, New Jersey 07701. Box Office:732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder; directed by Aaron Posner

Cast
Stage Manager & others……………….Doug Hara
Dr. Gibbs & others………...Stephen D'ambrose
Mrs. Gibbs…………………..Maureen Silliman
George Gibbs & others…………………Joe Binder
Mr. Webb & others………….........Wynn Harmon
Mrs. Webb & others…………………….Lisa Gunn
Emily Webb & others……………….Erin Weaver


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


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- Bob Rendell



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