Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Our Town is Thornton Wilder's 1938 masterwork, a play acclaimed not for telling an audacious or exotic story, but for bringing out the majesty and significance of the most routine aspects of daily life. Similarly, it impresses not with lavish stage craft and special effects, but by telling its story with the simplest of elementsa basically bare stage with a couple of tables, chairs for sitting at those tables, which become the pews of the town's Congregational church and final resting places for those who have left Grover's Corners for whatever comes after life. The Webb and Gibbs homes' upstairs are represented by ladders atop from which Emily and George awkwardly convey their growing affection to one another through facing bedroom windows. There are no propswe know well enough when beans are being snapped or newspapers tossed. The Stage Manager speaks to us directly, as if there never was a fourth wall to break, and embellishes the narration with factspast and futureabout the town and its inhabitants, even calling in a professor who drones on about the geological history (blessedly interrupted by the Stage Manager) of this corner of New Hampshire.
The extreme simplicity of the play's design and pared down essence of its story were major departures from theater as it was performed in 1938, when Our Town premiered, and it was rewarded with that year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of three Pulitzers Wilder earned in his lifetime (the others being for his 1927 novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and in 1942, for his play The Skin of Our Teeth). With frequent revivals and used as a touchstone for its departure from dramatic conventions, Our Town remains the best known of Wilder's work, and in most circles considered a landmark of American drama.
Why, then, does Artistry's production leave me wanting something more? The play is a sturdy work, with its exhortation to see, to hear, to fully feel the beauty and wonder of every morsel of life, making a case for the ordinariness with which most of our days are spent being the greatest of miracles. Beautiful thoughts, and certainly easy to lose sight of in the busyness of our world, ever more so as smart phone and laptop screens capture our attention at the expense of the actual world, and people with communiques broadcast to the masses in digitized formats reach us more readily than actual people right in front of us.
The charactersthe Webb and Gibbs families, the milkman who knows what's about in each family based on their consumption of dairy good, a succession of bright newsboys, a kindly town constable, gabby Mrs. Soames, and the troubled choirmaster, Simon Stimsonall are real and present, in their unassuming ways. The missing piece here, for me, is the Stage Manager. Oh, she is there all right, played by Linda Kelsey, one of the most consistently reliable and engaging of our local actors, but the connection between the Stage Manager and the town itself feels tentative, as if she is looking far back to a time she could scarce believe was ever so simple and innocentunderscored by frequent pauses to utter a "hmm" with a slight shake of the head, as if was so very long ago and no longer a part of her life.
Dressed in contemporary garb and similarly coiffed, Kelsey comes across as one of us, and not as one of those who bridge the gap to connect to us. Our Town is a period piece, covering 1901- 1913 and all the characters, save the Stage Manager, are dressed accordingly, nicely done by costume designer Ed Gleeman and enhanced by Paul Bigot's period wigs. But this Stage Manager is not one of them, who leap across a century to deliver the wisdom of Grover's Corners to our jaded, cyberized lives, but rather, is one of us, looking back with bemusement at a time long past, worth recalling for sentiments sake, but no longer a guide for a 2019 audience.
This may, in fact, be true: it may be naïve to believe that Emily's heartfelt proclamation that life is achingly beautiful, and that we thoughtlessly toss away our brief opportunity to absorb that beauty, can avert the woes of our current world. Wilder's manic dystopian-looking The Skin of Our Teeth may be more aligned with our modern crises. Yet, we want to believe in Emily's discovery, to grasp a chance of saving ourselves, at least until we leave the theater. We ought to be not only intellectually engaged with Emily's insight, but deeply moved by itand for that, we need the Stage Manager to bridge the chasm between then and now with authenticity and conviction.
With all that said, McGovern brings a vibrancy to the depiction of Grover's Corners, perhaps more quaint than pertinent, but thoroughly entertaining. Brianna Joy Ford is particularly winning as Emily, who journeys from brash and self-confident schoolgirl, to blushing, besotted sweetheart, to a young mother who suffers the pain of having it all snatched away. She is well matched by Jelani Pitcher as George, a boy who means to do the right thing, being guided first by his parents and then by his love toward adulthood. Their affection for one another must be believed for the play to touch us at all, and Ford and Pitcher achieve this, conveying both the tenderness and the awkwardness of their feelings.
Adelin Phelps creates a solid portrait of a loving but no-nonsense Mrs. Gibb, pining for a respite from her routine life, but beholden to the convention that holds her back, with a slight stoop that depicts the physical wear caused by a life of chores and obligations. Ansa Akyea as Dr. Gibb is the image of a dedicated small-town doctor, asserting a strong but kindly manner as head of the household. Elise Langer brings forth Mrs. Webb's somewhat flightier, more jovial version of the loving wife and mother than Mrs. Gibb. Jason Ballweber, as Mr. Webb, brings a boyishness to his character, perhaps a bit overplayed in contrast to the more natural cadences of the other performances. Craig Johnson delivers on the inner pain that haunts Simon Stinson, relieved with bouts of sarcasm and alcohol.
For anyone who has never seen Our Town, the opportunity to see this landmark work of American theater, with solid performances and staging, is well worth taken. Wilder had a genius for making poetry and passion attendant on everyday speech and commonplace behavior, and that in itself is inspiring. That the mystery of life revealed in the past is not propelled to stir the audience of the present diminishes the production from reaching the heights it might have achieved, but still leaves much on Artistry's stage to be grateful for and enjoy.
Our Town runs through September 29, 2019, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets are $43.00 - $46.00; seniors (Age 62 and up) $38.00 - $41.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under) $17.00. For tickets and information, call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Playwright: Thornton Wilder; Director: Benjamin McGovern; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Wig and Makeup Design: Paul Bigot; Associate Director: Cristina Castro; Stage Manager: Lydia Wagner; Assistant Stage Manager: Jessi Kadolph.
Cast: Ansa Akyea (Dr. Gibbs), Josh Bagley (Si Crowell), Catie Bair (Rebecca Gibbs), Jason Ballweber (Mr. Webb), Kellan Beck-O'Sullivan (Joe Crowell, Jr.), Liam Beck-O-Sullivan (Wally Webb), Luke Davidson (Sam Craig), Brianna Joy Ford (Emily Webb), Emily Grodzik (Professor Willard), Craig Johnson (Simon Stimson), Linda Kelsey (Stage Manager), Elise Langer (Mrs. Webb), Evan Latta (Howie Newsome), Patty Matthews (Mrs. Soames), Adelin Phelps (Mrs. Gibbs), Jelani Pitcher (George Gibbs), France A. Roberts (Joe Stoddard), Paul Rutledge (Constable Warren), Brittany Marie Wilson (Townsperson)