Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Directed by David Anderson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I figure itís something you have to go through."
Small town America is what it has always been: Not compelling. Small town Drama, however, can be if it is in the right hands. In Groverís Corners, New Hampshire, the setting for Thornton Wilderís Pulitzer Prize winning play "Our Town", there is personal small town drama all the time, if the people living there were only aware of it. They see the miniature world they inhabit as just another place and theyíre almost right. But luckily they have a young girl there named Emily Webb.
Emily is too smart for this town, too bright. She is intense and she is the best student in her class and she can switch subjects at the drop of a hat and make a perfect presentation, like that! Yet in spite of her "smarts" the girl has heart and soul and her story is at the center of the show, just as it should be. This girl invigorates her world, inspires love and admiration and envy too, to complete the picture. Her story is terrific and tragic but almost nothing can destroy her self-centering soul. Thatís drama.
As played by Bethany Caputo in Walking the Dog Theaterís new tent-bound production at PS/21 in Chatham, New York, Emily is a powerhouse. There is a dynamo within her worthy of a script by Eugene OíNeill. Instead she has Wilderís slow-paced, even-handed, broad-view picture of all that goes on around her keeping her story an element in the diorama of Our Town. A brilliant story is sucked into the town center and lies there, almost unimportant but impossible to miss. Caputo deserves better. She makes Emily the focus of what should be an ensemble piece. We know why George Gibbs, played nicely by Andrew Rosenberg, finds her so compelling. We know why her mother, played to the hilt by Nancy Rothman, is able to believe in Emily even when she can no longer protect her. We completely understand Mr. Webb, given a distinct warmth and firm substance by Eddie Allen, not wanting to let her go into the arms of another man.
The people peripheral to the story of Emily Webb pull our attention for a while as they should and then they try to do it again in the third act, but itís too late. Caputoís Emily has transformed this place in New England into her place, hers alone. While this may unbalance the play, it makes for much better theater than Iíve seen in other productions of this play. Obviously I am all for it.
Benedicta Bertau nicely portrays Mrs. Gibbs and is a perfect foil for Robert Ian Mackenzieís Doctor Gibbs. Parker Cross brings an unusual bitterness to the role of Simon Stimson and it was a welcome change from the complacency of the townspeople that surround him. Mrs. Soames, as played by Morgana, steals the wedding scene away from all of the principles.
In the central role of the Stage Manager, director David Anderson takes his best shot at a New England persona. He is a winning actor, a performer of tender aspects, but his over dentilized "t"s and his clipped speech sometimes get in his way. This character, outside the black box of the stage, must introduce, inform and enlighten us during the playís progress from start to finish, but instead he becomes slightly intrusive. Written that way and always a problem for me, Anderson has not found a way to more completely integrate the man into the town he represents.
And perhaps that is the fault of the play itself. It pretends that nothing ever happens in Grovers Corners and that no one important ever came from there. The show ends in 1912 and this prescient character, the Stage Manager, just may not know everything. Someone great may have come out of this town. Something wonderful may have happened there in the yearís since. Emily Webb was there. And for a while, at least, Our Town is her town. Exclusively.
Andrew Rosenberg and Bethany Caputo; photo: Peter Blandori, PS21
Act III; photo: Peter Blandori, PS21
David Anderson; photo: Peter Blandori, PS21
Our Town plays through August 1 at PS/21, located on Route 66 north of Chatham, NY. For information or tickets call the box office at 518-392-6121 or visit the PS/21 website at www.ps21chatham.org.