Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Our Town
Huntington Theatre Company

Therese Plaehn, David Cromer and
Derrick Trumbly

Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the locale for Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town, does not exist. Although the narrator tells us it is "just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes," in actuality, that bearing is somewhere off the coast of the Bay State. The facts notwithstanding, for one hundred shining minutes, Grover's Corners comes alive in the Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts where Director David Cromer and a cast of 32 actors and actresses conjure up this small town and the everyday people who comprise its community, without artifice and with stunning authenticity.

The Huntington Theatre Company is remounting the 2009 Off-Broadway production with Obie Award winner Cromer reprising his role as Stage Manager (through December 30) and imparting his contemporary vision of the play to an ensemble culled from the local theater Rolodex. Men and women who are often the leading players on Boston stages, many of whom are IRNE or Elliot Norton Award nominees or winners, contribute their artistry in roles of varying size and importance with quality performances across the spectrum. When Cromer steps down, celebrated Boston actor Joel Colodner replaces him from December 31st through the end of the run.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town is the most produced play in the United States as it approaches the 75th anniversary of its premiere on January 22, 1938, at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, followed three days later by performances at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston before its February 4th debut in New York. To say that it has stood the test of time is an understatement, but the explanation is obvious. We go to the theater to see ourselves, and this play is about us, who we are, and how we live, day in and day out. Although it is set in 1901, Wilder has given us the ultimate theatrical time machine because it continues to be relevant today, especially in Cromer's hands.

There is nothing extraordinary about the citizens of Grover's Corners or the members of the Gibbs and Webb families followed more closely in Wilder's story. Dr. Gibbs works too hard and his wife tries to plan a vacation. George is a typical teenage boy who would rather play baseball than chop wood for his mother or labor over his algebra homework, while little sister Rebecca does her best to annoy the big brother she idolizes. Over at the Webb household, mother is the family general, encouraging children Emily and Wally to hurry to breakfast so they won't be late for school and keeping order for her husband, the publisher and editor of The Sentinel.

As they go about their business, they have ordinary encounters with the other townspeople, including the newsboy, the milkman, the constable, a gossipy member of the church choir and the organist who drinks too much, conveying the small town atmosphere that envelops the play. Totally ignoring the fourth wall, the Stage Manager narrates and explains as he confidently strides around the room, speaking directly to the 250-member audience as if addressing a town meeting. His demeanor is at once no-nonsense and reassuring and, with yellow legal pad in hand, it is evident that it is his responsibility to keep things moving apace. Succinctly put, we watch George and Emily fall in love, get married, have children and suffer great loss. A day in the life, as it were.

As difficult as it is to turn away from Cromer's magnetic presence, there are at least half a dozen others who draw our attention. Therese Plaehn is riveting as Emily Webb. She is believable at every point along the way of her character's story arc. We ache for the insecure school girl seeking her mother's reassurance that she is pretty, even as she longs to be appreciated for her smarts, and root for her when she dares to speak her mind to George. When they realize that they are in love, the silent communication between Plaehn and Derrick Trumbly as George is a powerful moment.

Craig Mathers and Melinda Lopez are both strong as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, salt of the earth types who put others before themselves. Stacy Fischer portrays the hard working, no nonsense Mrs. Webb with an air of strength and fatigue, and Christopher Tarjan is the easygoing and practical Mr. Webb. Marianna Bassham hits the right notes as gossipy Mrs. Soames, managing to sound sardonic and goodhearted all at once. Nael Nacer makes a strong impression as the choir director Simon Stimson, showing the intensity of the man's pain and suffering with his entire body.

It was Wilder's original concept to leave the stage bare and have the movements of his characters imply their activities, such as cooking, sewing, or tossing a newspaper. Yet even without bricks and mortar, eschewing theatrical lighting effects for the most part (the house lights are up for the majority of the play), and dressing the cast in contemporary clothing that might very well come from their own closets, the dramatic power of Our Town is palpable, more so in the intimate Roberts Theatre. Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay, Costume Designer Alison Siple and Lighting Designer Heather Gilbert contribute to the overall impact by making their work barely noticeable. Original music by Music Director Jonathan Mastro helps us to visualize our own image of the town.

Profound in its simplicity, Our Town is so much more than its collection of mundane activities and events. Wilder's brilliance shines through in his writing, with his emphasis on human nature, the depth of the relationships and the connections within the community. His New England town is a microcosm of any town, any neighborhood, or any family; wherever people are joined by something they share in common, be it genes or geography, commerce or climate, joy or grief. Just as in real life, there are moments of sheer delight and poignant moments in Grover's Corners. Everyone learns that the former are fleeting, while the latter can and must be endured. Emily asks, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? - every, every minute?" The Stage Manager answers simply, "No." However, to experience the Huntington Theatre Company's production is to realize life as fully as possible, at least for 100 shining minutes.

Our Town performances through January 26, 2013, by Huntington Theatre Company at Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or Written by Thornton Wilder, Directed by David Cromer; Scenic Design, Stephen Dobay; Costume Design, Alison Siple; Lighting Design, Heather Gilbert; Original Music & Music Direction, Jonathan Mastro; Production Stage Manager, Amy Louise Spalletta; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle

Cast: David Cromer (through Dec. 30), Joel Colodner (starting Dec. 31), Melinda Lopez, Stacy Fischer, Craig Mathers, Jay Ben Markson, Alex Pollock, Derrick Trumbly, Emily Skeggs, Therese Plaehn, Eliott Purcell, Richard Arum, Christopher Tarjan, Nael Nacer, Marianna Bassham, Paul D. Farwell, Ryan Wenke, Dale Place, Nicholas Carter, Kathryn Lynch, Douglas Griffin, Suzanne Bixby, James Bocock, Anne Colpitts, Kevin Fennessy, Michael Henry James Knowlton, Jeff Marcus, Ellen Peterson, Bill Salem, Ann Marie Shea, Sophie Sinclair, Ralph Stokes, Lynn Wilcott

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

- Nancy Grossman

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