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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Our Town in Old City
Arden Theatre Company

Our Town
Chioma Dunkley as Rebecca Gibbs, Rebecca Blumhagen, Eric Hissom, Peterson Townsend and Brian Kurtas
It's been said that some theaters stage Our Town to save money on sets - but for its new production, the Arden didn't skimp on anything. Thornton Wilder specified that his 1938 masterpiece have no scenery, and this excellent new production holds true to that dictum, with one exception: In the middle of the show, the cast and the audience walk out of the theater and into a historic, 281-year-old church for an exceedingly authentic wedding scene. It's that exception that helps make this production of Our Town exceptional.

Our Town chronicles life in Grover's Corners, an undistinguished New Hampshire town, between 1901 and 1913, and makes the point that even the most ordinary life is special. It opens on a typical day with villagers feeding chickens and stringing beans, delivering milk and delivering babies. Then we watch two characters fall in love and marry, and finally we deal with the death of a major character.

It's easy to dismiss Our Town as overly sentimental, but that would be too facile. There's a hard edge to Wilder's worldview; life in Grover's Corners may be quaint, but it isn't easy. Teenager George's big dream is to be a farmer, but he has to learn to discipline himself to succeed at that hard way of life. His mother dreams of a trip to Paris she'll never be able to make. The town drunk decries the "ignorance and blindness" of the townspeople. There's a fresh-faced paperboy who, we learn, will later be killed in World War I; "All that education for nothing," says the show's all-knowing Stage Manager. Yet in the end, the heroine Emily learns just how ephemeral and precious life is, and why these seemingly mundane lives are worth being appreciated.

Director Terrence J. Nolen makes the overly familiar tale vivid by stressing the connection of quaint Grover's Corners to modern-day Philadelphia. The show starts in the Arden's versatile main staging area, rearranged to have the audience on nearly all sides of the action. The stage has been removed and the actors move about on the floor. Occasionally the Stage Manager will venture into the audience to make a point; "Right here's a big butternut tree," he says, slapping one of the theater's metal support columns. Members of the community take part in the show; there's a different local choir appearing each night, and the question and answer segment features local notables (Governor Ed Rendell on opening night, public radio host Marty Moss-Coane on the night I attended).

During the first intermission the audience walks next door to Christ Church, the stately Old City sanctuary where Washington and Franklin worshipped, for the act two wedding of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. (Fittingly, a "Closed for Wedding" sign is hanging on the church's gate.) We stand as the bride walks up the aisle; we participate in the service ("Please turn to page 23 and help us sing 'How Great Thou Art'"); and we watch as the Stage Manager, playing the part of the minister, ascends the steps to the grand pulpit to deliver Wilder's words. Then it's back to the Arden - walking past the graves of several signers of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence - for act three, which is set in a graveyard and seems especially somber after the celebration of act two. The floor and walls are all black, and the mourners carry black umbrellas; Richard St. Clair's excellent costumes in this scene are mostly in shades of black and gray, except for Emily Webb, a ghostly vision in white.

Nolen has also tried to convey a sense of what our own town is like by using colorblind casting. For instance, in the Webb family, the father and the daughter are white, while the wife and the son are black. The casting does not feel gimmicky; these actors seem very comfortable with each other. Yet if the casting is really meant to reflect present-day Philadelphia, why are there no Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, or any other ethnic group? By trying to appear inclusive, Nolen only calls attention to who's missing.

Nolen has gotten excellent performances from nearly all the members of his large cast. Eric Hissom is unaffected and straightforward as the Stage Manager. Kevyn Morrow is full of warmth and gentle authority as Doc Gibbs, and Greg Wood is endearing as Editor Webb, who is still trying to make sense of his role as a father. Sherri L. Edelen and JoAnna Rhinehart are poignant as their hard-working wives, and Rebecca Blumhagen brings a lovely earnestness to the role of the ever-yearning Emily Webb. The only disappointing performance was by Peterson Townsend, who seemed strangely subdued and sullen as the supposedly gregarious George Gibbs.

The Arden also shows our connection to the past by including vintage photographs of Old City in the program; one photo shows destitute children in an alley next to what is now the Arden Theatre. "Look at how poor all those people are," said the woman sitting next to me, gazing at the photos. "And now you have to be rich to live here."

Our Town never seems like a dry literary exercise in the Arden's naturalistic presentation. By moving the production out onto the streets (and into the pews) where our republic was born, the play seems at once contemporary and timeless. Nolen and his gifted company show just how much of our town (and yours) there really is in Our Town.

Our Town in Old City runs through June 22. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215.922.1122, in person at 40 North 2nd Street in Philadelphia or online at www.ardentheatre.org.

Our Town in Old City
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Assistant Director... Ed Robins
Associate Producer... Matthew Decker
Set Design... Jim Kronzer
Costume Design... Richard St. Clair
Lighting Design ... Justin Townsend
Sound Design... Troy Herion
Production Stage Manager ... Thomas Shotkin

Cast:
Stage Manager... Eric Hissom
Dr. Gibbs... Kevyn Morrow
Mrs. Gibbs... Sherri L. Edelen
George Gibbs... Peterson Townsend
Rebecca Gibbs... Chioma Dunkley
Mr. Webb... Greg Wood
Mrs. Webb... JoAnna Rhinehart
Wally Webb... Jordan Johnson
Emily Webb... Rebecca Blumhagen
Joe Crowell/Si Crowell... David Corenswet
Howie Newsome... Brian Anthony Wilson
Constable Warren... Damien J. Wallace
Professor Willard... Bev Appleton
Simon Stimson... Frederick Andersen
Mrs. Soames... Carla Belver
Sam Craig... Nathan Edmondson
Joe Stoddard... Oberon K.A. Adjepong
People of the Town... Krista Apple, Robert Bauer, Katrina Yvette Cooper, Juanita Frederick, Dylan Jackson, Andy Joos, Brian Kurtas, Harry Philibosian, Erin DeBlois Read, Chaz Rose, Wendy Staton, Tara Van Ness


Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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