Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. Directed by John Trainor. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
". . .set out to live, two by two. . ."
Kate Marin, Susan Dantz, Amy Hausknecht; photo: Cindy Smith
I've said it many times: "I do not like 'Our Town'." I've seen it too many times to like it all tthat much. This is the third production in eight years and there's still one to go. Ever since I can remember every high school in every region I've lived in has been doing this play. Every college and summer theater seems to take it up and produce it. It shows up on Broadway far too often. But every once in a while something happens to transform it and bring it back to its origins and when that happens, as it did on stage at the Ghent Playhouse, it transforms me and my feelings about the play.
It is a simple play about simple people in a simpler time in America, 1901 to 1913. Set in fictitious Grovers Corners, New Hampshire (probably partially based on Hamden, Connecticut) it reveals the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life. While telling the story of the Gibbs family and their neighbors the Webb family, it really expresses a lot of Gertrude Stein's influence on Wilder and the effect her novel "The Making of Americans" (1924) may have had on him during the writing of this play. The book covers roughly the same time period and focuses on the marriage of two young people from neighboring families.
What has happened in this production of the play is that wonderfully unique result of pitting experienced non-professionals with the language of an intellectual author while keeping them from acting their roles. The people here in Ghent are living their parts, simply and with a straight-forward delivery that is most unusual. Director John Trainor has restrained them from the posing that acting can force onto the unusually simple words, repeated often one way or another, that illuminate the reality of the characters. It is a hard job to keep the non-professional actor from "acting" a role, but Trainor has done it even within the context of the non-set, non-prop pantomime show of the play. The result is Trainor's triumph. Special calls of "bravo" should go out to him at each and every performance for he has restored the play to its realistic base and given it a new life.
Among the universally fine performances are those of the Gibbs and Webbs. Susan Dantz is perfection as Mrs. Gibbs and Joseph Kelly as her husband, Dr. Gibbs is her equal in living the role. Amy Hausknecht is a wonderful, warm and endearing Mrs. Webb and Bill Shein as her husband has some of the most perfect moments in the play, particularly in his scene with George Gibbs where advice to the next generation takes on a new humor and his scene with his daughter Emily at her wedding when he morphs into the Dad everyone wishes was his own. His prospective son-in-law is played with an almost haphazard humanity by Quinn Haley. Every now and then he starts to act, but he quickly abandons that effort for playing up his own relationship with his character and he moves us to tears in the third act without uttering a single word.
Ely Loskowitz does very well playing the brothers Joe and Si Crowell. Sam Reilly is an excellent Howie Newsome, the milkman and also as Sam Craig in the final act. Austin Valliere is an ideal, disorienting Simon Stimson. Kate Marin is a joyous Mrs. Soames.
Susan Dantz, Joseph Kelly; photo: Cindy Smith
Bill Shein, Quinn Haley; photo: Cindy Smith
Meaghan Rogers; photo: Cindy Smith
At the center of the play is the Stage Manager, the show's narrator/god figure, a man who can call up a scene or curtail it, describe the place, time and atmosphere, move the play along or send it into a flashback with a simple request to the company. As the play is set on a stage in a theater, a stage without a set but only a few chairs and ladders to serve as indications of sets, it is his job to help us see what the author wants us to see without the distraction of wallpaper, major lighting effects, or even plates, glasses, cups and books. He is played in this production by Eric Washburn whose off-hand delivery is so natural and real that you would swear he was making it all up as goes along telling the story and defining the logistics.
Again director Trainor lets him be himself, for the most part, without acting the role and so he sets the tone for the balance of the company. He is neither overly affected nor obviously acting. He is a man we seem to know telling a story we seem to have heard. His sweetness and his charm are all that matter.
Similarly, as Emily Webb, the more-or-less heroine who lives, loves, marries and dies, Meaghan Rogers brings real life to the stage in Ghent. She never seems to be acting, but when her emotions get the better of her, she grows more honest and genuine than we might expect from an actor. As a result we are taken with her on the ride through her life.
It's hard to know if the lighting of this opening night performance is what the director asked for as often the actors are not in light when they speak, but when they are seen they wear Joanne Maurer's perfect costumes well. And throughout the play the sound effects - a bit too loud - give us shots of reality once again as they place us in the small town America that Stein and Wilder have offered us.
I never thought I'd write these words, but, this is a production of "Our Town" that truly deserves to be seen.
Our Town runs at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY through June 3. For information and tickets go to ghentplayhouse.org.