Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Bewitching Naturalistic Production of Thornton Wilder's Own Town

Also see Richard's reviews of The Good German, Bricktop and Plain and Fancy

Vivian Kane, Wood Lockhart and Francis Serpa
Ross Valley Players, now celebrating their 75th year of entertaining audiences in Mill Valley, presents Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town. This is one of the America's best plays. The poetic dialogue is inspirational. The drama was first performed at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22nd, 1938. The New York City debut was on February 4th, 1938, at Henry Miller's Theatre before moving to the Morosco. It ran for 336 performances. The cast included the legendary Frank Craven as the Stage Manager; he repeated his role in Sam Wood's 1940 film which featured a very young William Holden as George and Martha Scott as Emily. I first saw the stage version at ANTA Playhouse in November 1969 with Henry Fonda playing the role of the Stage Manager. That production boasted an all-star cast with Harvey Evans as George and Elizabeth Hartman as Emily, plus some great acting names of stage and screen including Ed Begley, John Beal, Margaret Hamilton and John Randolph.

Our Town has been graced with four television productions, including a musical version, Love and Marriage, starring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager. There have been numerous regional productions, including a very different version presented by the Berkeley Repertory which was described as having a different spin for the 21st century audience. An opera version, with music by Ned Rorem and libretto by J.D. McClatchy, premiered at the Indiana University Opera Theatre last year. Recently a workshop musical was presented in New York called Grover's Corners.

Donald H. Wolfe in the New York Times said "If Our Town is a period piece, on a reflection of another age, what is it about Thornton Wilder's play that endures? And why is it still very timely today?" Being raised in a small town in Ohio, it has always hit home with me and somehow I am always pleasantly affected by the three-act play.

Our Town is a charming play about the citizens of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, which has a population of around 2300. During the pleasing first act the audience learns the details about the town's history. The plot centers around the lives of high school student George Gibbs (Francis Serpa), son of Dr. Gibbs (Chuck Isen), the town's only doctor, and teenager Emily Webb (Vivian Kane), whose father (Keith Jefferds) is the town's weekly newspaper editor. This act takes place over a single day and it is a convincing blend of nostalgia and small town life in America at the start of the 20th century.

The second act, titled "Marriage and Love," follows the courtship and wedding of George and Emily. The courting scene in the drugstore has some of the best natural dialogue ever written for the stage. Francis Serpa as George is first rate in displaying exceptional confusion in both the soda fountain scene and the irrational advice he gets from the future father-in-law.

The third act titled "Death" is a beautiful piece of solemn writing. Wilder wrote this scene in just one day after a long walk in the rain in Zurich in 1937. It takes place in the graveyard in 1911 where we see the dead souls of many of the characters. They give plaintive insights about their past lives, especially Mrs. Soames (Kathryn Daskal) who remarks "My, wasn't life awful - and wonderful," which is a line that summarizes the whole play.

This is a wonderful naturalistic production without any bells and whistles. It is presented on a simple stage with little or no scenery, and director Robert Wilson has assembled a superb cast of natural acting performers. All have excellent New England accents, particularly Keith Jefferds (And Then There Were None at CCCT) who gives an outstanding performance in the role of Mr. Webb. Wood Lockhart (Proof, On Golden Pond, 2005 BATCC nomination for Best Actor) gives a splendid laid back performance with a soft "down Easterner" accent. Vivian Kane (recent graduate from San Francisco State University Theatre Arts) gives an appealing performance as Emily while Francis Serpa (performed at Marin Shakespeare Company) gives a nice performance as George.

Jennifer Reimer and Kathleen Gerard give topnotch performances as Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs. Chuck Isen gives an excellent portrayal of Dr. Gibbs. Supporting players Philip Bohlman, Hugh Campion, Stephen Dietz, Kurt Gundersen, L. Thomas Kushner and Molly McGrath all give great performances in this evocative play.

Our Town runs through April 22 at the Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd at Lagunitas, Ross. For tickets please call 415-456-9555or visit Their next production is The Underpants opening on May 11 and running through June 17th.

Photo: Ron Severdia

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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