Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"Our Town" at Artistry

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is an American classic, first produced over 80 years ago, and continuing through the years with frequent productions in theaters and schools around the country. It's a simple story really; its three acts explore the ideas of "Daily Life," "Love and Marriage," and "Death and Dying" through the interconnected residents of Grover's Corners. But it's really quite profound in its simplicity, the final act being especially poignant as it forces us to look at the beauty of every day life and communion with our fellow human beings, something that is often overlooked in the busyness of life.* The new production by Artistry, perhaps best known for their musicals, features a fantastic cast that brings out all of the humor, heart, and meaning in this classic. There's a reason that Our Town continues to be produced, and audiences continue to see it - it speaks to us in a very real and deep way.

Linda Kelsey and the cast of Our Town (photo by Devon Cox)
The play is written in an unusual style, in which a character known as "Stage Manager" (played by Linda Kelsey whom you may know from TV, who is so warm and natural here) serves as narrator, and fully acknowledges that this is a play, introducing scenes and cutting them off when time is short. She speaks directly to the audience as she tells us the story of this extraordinarily ordinary town. We meet many people in the town, from the milkman to the constable to the town drunk, but the focus is on the Gibbs and Webb families. George Gibbs and Emily Webb (Chicago imports Jelani Pitcher and Brianna Joy Ford, both full of youthful charm that grows into something deeper throughout the play) are teenagers and best friends in the first act, and the second act features their wedding at a young age. The third act takes place in the cemetery, with the deceased observing and commenting on the living. The recently departed wants to relive one mundane day in their life, against the advice of the other residents of the cemetery. They soon find out that it's too painful to watch the careless way people go about the day, not realizing how precious each moment is, and beg to be returned to their grave.*

George and Emily (Jelani Pitcher and Brianna Joy Ford,
photo by Devon Cox)
This production is done in the traditional minimalist style, with the stage open to the back walls, the only set pieces a few tables, chairs, ladders, and simple backdrops in unfinished wood (designed by Rick Polenek). Benjamin McGovern directs the cast in a playful way, at times acknowledging they're in a play, at times totally immersed in the scene. Actors mime actions with invisible props, so that we can really focus on the words, emotions, and story rather than the objects on stage. Other highlights in the cast include Adelin Phelps, Ansa Akyea, Elise Langer, and Jason Ballweber as the Gibbs and Webb parents (the latter two bringing the funny, as they do); Craig Johnson as the funny/sad alcoholic choir director; and Catie Bair and Liam Beck-O'Sullivan as the younger siblings.

I've seen this play a few times now (who hasn't?), but I always forget just how brilliant it is at capturing the very essence of life. The humor, the pain, the delight, the difficulties, all with very simple and almost matter of fact language that cuts right to the truth of the matter. If you've never seen Our Town or have seen it a dozen times, it's still worth a visit to this lovely depiction of Grover's Corners.

Our Town continues through September 29 (click here for info and tickets).

*Some text borrowed from what I wrote about previous productions I've seen.