Our Town at Intiman Theatre
Also see David's review of Smokey Joe's Café
Our Town, Thornton Wilder's sturdy slice of surreal Americana, recently served as a triumphant return to Broadway for Paul Newman, in the role of the omnipresent Stage Manager. In Bartlett Sher's respectable yet uneven mounting of the play - the first in Intiman's planned five year long American Cycle (which will include The Grapes of Wrath next season and Native Son in 2006) - veteran film and television actor Tom Skerritt makes a rare stage appearance in the role. The actor, so wonderful in the late, great gothic Americana television series Picket Fences, is not always at home onstage. This is the most significant problem in Sher's production, though not the only one.
Act one, which chronicles a day in turn-of-the-century Grover's Corners, New Hampshire crawls along at a snail's pace, introducing the key Webb and Gibbs families, including central couple Emily Webb and George Gibbs. Skerritt's reedy speaking voice is not ideal for the stage, but his personable, wry yet warmly humorous persona works well for the Stage Manager. Two weeks into the play's run, the actor still seems hesitant and tentative with his lines, most notably in the long first act, where he is so dominantly featured. Act two, the most humorous, deals with love and marriage and turns more stage time over to the Webb and Gibbs clans, showing us how Emily and George's romance blossomed, leading to their wedding day. Act three, in which Emily, who has died in childbirth, spends a few bittersweet hours revisiting a day in her youth, still packs the primal emotional wallop that wowed theatergoers, critics and Pulitzer Prize adjudicators alike, back in the late thirties when Our Town premiered on Broadway.
Director Sher, known for his adventurous, original staging of such plays as Cymbeline and Titus Andronicus, sticks to basics here, apart from his multicultural casting, which varies in its effectiveness. It's not that we can't accept Caucasian actress Celia Keenan Bolger's Emily having African American Allan Gilmore as her father. It's the fact that Gilmore seems way too contemporary, and too busy acting, opposite Ms. Bolger Keenan's feisty yet believable small town girl from the 1900s. On the other hand, Asian American actress Lisa Li is a fine fit for the role of Mrs. Gibbs and establishes a grand rapport with Laurence Ballard's easygoing Dr. Gibbs. Jeanne Paulsen, all outward calm and inward conflict, is the heart and soul of the production as Mrs. Webb, while Celia Keenan Bolger's feisty and heartfelt Emily and Joaquin Torres' easygoing charmer George are about all one could ask for in their roles. In a large supporting cast, which sadly wastes the majestic talents of Broadway vet Patti Cohenour in a cameo role, Josephine Howell makes a fiercely comic impression as a gushing wedding guest named Mrs. Soames, who still manages to gush once she is laid to rest in the town cemetery.
Christopher Akerlind's scenic and lighting design follow the spare, stark outline of the original, wisely not opting for naturalistic scenery or showy lighting. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costume design is handsome and apt, and composer/sound designer Peter John Still creates a minimalistic yet haunting musical underscore, which punctuates the action at appropriate moments.
I really, truly wanted to be enraptured by Our Town, a favorite play of mine, right there with Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Intiman's version has enough savory moments to get by, but Wilder's venerable classic is obviously not as easy to get right as one might think.
Our Town runs through November 20 at Intiman Theatre, 201 Mercer Street, Seattle Center. For more information visit Intiman on-line at www.intiman.org.