Berkeley Repertory Theatre Presents a Different Spin on Thornton Wilder's
I have seen this play many times, starting with the ANTA playhouse production in 1969 with Henry Fonda playing the role of the Stage Manager. American Conservatory Theatre did a superb production several years ago with Peter Donat as the manager and Annette Benning playing Emily. Last year The Playhouse of San Francisco presented a wonderful production with Wanda McFadden playing the stage manager role. I have never seen a production of this classic using any kind of set, with the exception of a few chairs and a table. The poetry of Wilder's words are more important than these extra trimmings.
I suppose you could say this is Our Town for 21st century audiences, and many will be seeing this play for the very first time. I am a fan of Jonathan Moscone's productions and he has done superb job directing at California Shakespeare Festival (i.e. the current production of Nicholas Nickleby). He is the "Peter Sellers" of the Bay area, I reckon. Many modern directors have had different ideas on how to present the play. Should it be like the original, charming play with nostalgia and fatalism or with sarcasm and acid? Mr. Moscone has chosen the latter.
Unfortunately, Moscone has taken all of the charm from this classic. As the Stage Manager played by Barbara Oliver says, we are going to see a play - just a play about life in the early 20th century in a New Hampshire town. However, there is no natural feeling coming from the large cast. Some of the dialogue is missing and the scenes go by so rapidly that it looses its magic spell on the huge stage.
Jonathan Moscone has incorporated many little changes to make it "acceptable" to modern audiences. The opening scene has a child played by Emily Trumble coming down the aisle of the theatre singing to herself while dim projections are shown on a curtain, apparently of families of the town. The curtain opens and Barbara Oliver comes out looking like she was at a cocktail party in Berkeley. Ms. Oliver is one of our best actresses in the Bay Area and she had done superb work over the years. However, here she seems miscast. She could barely be heard in her opening speech, which has been cut down. It's done in a monotone with very little inflection.
Other little changes include a musical duet about going to foreign lands between Mrs. Gibbs (Julie Eccles) and Mrs. Webb (Nance Williamson), in which they don't speak English. They break into "Faraway Places" which was not around in the early 20th century. Another little piece that seems strange is the presentation of the wonderful history of Grover's Corners, which is a great solo piece for Professor Willard. Now the director puts in what looks like a Martha Graham interpretation of the history with "the children" doing all sorts of strange movements and body bending.
Bill Heck as George Gibbs and Emma Roberts as Emily Webb are just a little too old to be playing these romantic, teenager roles. Heck, who recently appeared on Broadway in Brooklyn Boy, has retained his Brooklyn accent for this production which makes little sense. He tries to look like a teenager in the early 20th century but just does not make it believable. Emma Roberts (has appeared in many regional theatre productions, including the Old Globe) seems to be a very pushy Emily Webb. Both play these roles as caricatures of modern teenagers.
Our Town's second act, subtitled "Love and Marriage," also has very little charisma. There is no magnetism between the two young characters and you don't get the idea they are in a drug store having an "expensive" ice cream soda. The Stage Manager, who plays the manager of the establishment, just wanders around the stage. In the third act, which is the funeral scene, the actors seem lost on the big stage. A tower of stage lamps that can be seen on the left side of the stage cast a ghostly light on the cast members. You get no sympathetic feeling from either George or Emily. It looks as if the director has cut this third act down to a quick finish.
A large cast of well known Bay Area actors has been assembled, including Charles Shaw Robinson as Dr. Gibbs and Paul Vincent O'Connor as Editor Webb. Both give sterling performances as the most enlightened members of the small town. They have the spirit of Thornton Wilder's play. Julia Eccles and Nance Williamson as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb give beautiful performances, especially in the first and third acts. Ken Ruta gives a par excellence performance in the small role of the dark alcoholic choirmaster. His movement off stage singing to himself is a brilliant piece of acting. In various roles, Jarion Monroe once again proves his versatility. Sharon Lockwood is very good, especially when she is watching the wedding of George and Emily. Emily Trumble as George's youngest sister makes the most of her small role, especially in the scene about a letter that has been written to someone in the small town (Sarah Smithton alternates with Trumble in this role). She is excellent in that small solo part. The rest of the large cast include Trevor Cheitlin, Jacob Cohen, Alex Kaplan and Gideon Lazarus, who are good in their small roles.
Our Town will be playing at the Berkeley Rep's Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley through October 23rd. For tickets and information call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-4-BRT-Tix or www.berkeleyrep.org.