Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Our Town"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"OUR TOWN"

by Thornton Wilder

directed by Jason Southerland

Bobbie Steinbach … Stage Manager
Lindsay Joy … Emily Webb
Scott Adams … George Gibbs
John Furse … Dr. Gibbs
Sharon Mason … Mrs. Gibbs
James Bodge … Mr. Webb
Shelley Brown/Elizabeth A. Wightman … Mrs. Webb
with
Mia Anderson … Mrs. Soames
John Rosie Geier … Simon Stimpson
Gabe Goodman … Wally Webb
Tom Lawlor … Howie Newsome/Sam Craig
Alex Wallace … Joe/Si Crowell
Murray Wheeler … Constable/Joe Stoddard
Olivia Wise … Rebecca Gibbs

There is a cold wind blowing through Boston Theatre Works’ production of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN; in his quest for “cutting edge” theatre --- that phrase makes me think of gleaming scalpels slicing open something warm and alive --- director Jason Southerland has taken Mr. Wilder’s celebrated play of life, love and death in a small New Hampshire town, removed its beating heart, couldn’t find much to revise and packed the remains on ice, and that is what his audiences will be seeing: Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN, on ice and without a heart. The performance itself is not a bad one --- but it is a cold one.

Enter the Tremont Theatre’s auditorium and you’ll swear you’re in an art gallery --- silhouette screens; a revolving steel-frame door; a clutch of cuckoo clocks downstage left; bits of costumes hanging from dangling hooks; harsh white lighting. An arresting environment designed and lit by Robert Pyzocha and Matt Richards; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the play’s actors inside glass cases, waiting to be thawed so they can act out How Life Was Lived in the early 20th century --- (Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, for example, move about their kitchens like assembly line workers --- “Housewives Making Breakfast” could be the caption). Aside from the chilly décor (Mr. Wilder insisted on a bare stage, himself), much of Mr. Southerland’s OUR TOWN is conventional enough (aside from having the ENTIRE cast being dead at the end; a holocaust?) --- whether you are relieved or disappointed will depend on whether you prefer a Classic or The Edge.

A BTW flyer reads, “…we jumped at the chance to tackle this American icon and offer an insightful perspective on the 21st century”, which prompts me to ask: what is there to tackle in OUR TOWN? Does it now need to have its shoulders pinned to the mat until it cries “Uncle”? Since he garnered acclaim for his workmanlike THE LARAMIE PROJECT, Mr. Southerland may have been inspired to take on (and possibly expose?) Mr. Wilder’s town. OUR TOWN remains one of the simplest, sweetest plays ever written; generations of high school students have read and/or acted in it, and it has always been a perennial favorite with community theatres. Last November’s production at the Old South Church may have been amateurish but its heart was very much alive and in the right place, and the warm community feeling generated between the actors and their parish/audience only added to its calico charm. Mr. Southerland , on the other hand, cares not for simplicity or sweetness --- can one be a warm, compassionate vivisectionist? --- but why pick apart OUR TOWN in the first place? Following the tragedy of 11 September 2001 and the darkening skies about us nowadays, Mr. Wilder’s play is once again a beacon tribute to the decency, honesty and strength of the American people just as it was in 1938; today’s audiences will want and expect a comforting OUR TOWN, not a freeze-dried one. (If a director still demands his (re)vision, why not have an all-black cast of OUR TOWN? Now that is something I’d like to see….)

Said flyer also refers to OUR TOWN as “dated”. Of course, OUR TOWN is dated --- it was dated the minute Mr. Wilder wrote “The End”, for in 1938 he was both celebrating and mourning the world that he knew circa 1900, a world that had vanished long before the Depression and Fascism clouded America’s spacious skies. The play is dated, but that doesn’t mean it’s false: the Stage Manager’s universal truths can still be uttered without provoking groans or snickers from the audience. But “dated” in this particular context means OUR TOWN no longer works as is and must be jump-started for today’s audiences --- a condescension to both Mr. Wilder and to those who love and/or have come to see his play. Even THE LARAMIE PROJECT will become dated in time; generations from now, people will ask, “Who was Matthew Shepherd?”

When I reviewed the Old South Church production, I wrote, “as long as the Stage Manager remembers his many lines and the actress playing Emily supplies the necessary poignancy, any production has a solid chance of winning over an audience.” Bobbie Steinbach plays the Stage Manager for the BTW production, as did Michelle Dowd (from BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE) at the Old South Church. Neither performance worked for me, not because women were cast in a male role but because they were not played in period as representatives of Grover’s Corner; rather, Mss. Dowd and Steinbeich came off as strolling anthropologists. Had Ms. Steinbach, a most enjoyable comedienne, played either Mrs. Gibbs or Mrs. Webb, Mr. Southerland’s production would have warmed up considerably, even in its icebox. As the ingénue Emily, Lindsay Joy is simply miscast. She was an acceptable Polly Garter in UNDER MILK WOOD (The Ablaize Theatre Initiative), but her Emily is tough, brattish and knowing in a Bad Girl sort of way --- akin to Rebecca Honig’s man-hungry Juliet in the BTW production of ROMEO AND JULIET back in ’99. Mr. Southerland and his fellow directors may choose to keep casting aggressive actresses as their ingénues, but anyone who saw Amy Shea’s near-definitive Emily for the Old South Church would agree with me when I quote, “as a terribly bright teenager, a young woman falling in love with the boy next door, and a radiant ghost, Ms. Shea was enchanting in both voice and movement … the biggest pleasure (and nostalgia) for me in this TOWN was watching Ms. Shea come off as convincingly, touchingly virginal. No small feat in this Age of Britney Spears.” (Or Cutting Edge Theatre.)

With two exceptions, Mr. Southerland’s actors do not come off as denizens of a horse-and-buggy town: Mrs. Gibbs is a 1950s sitcom mom; George has strayed in from a video arcade; the two younger children in the cast have dropped in after school, complete with backpacks, etc. Those two exceptions are Tom Lawler as the milkman Howie Newsome and Elizabeth A. Wightman, who is filling in for the indisposed actress cast as Mrs. Webb (she may be gone by the time you read this). Both actors have their feet planted in the earth, not the concrete; Mr. Lawler is an engaging, low-key soul and all the more watchable by his not calling attention to himself. Physically, Ms. Wightman is perfect as a turn-of-the-century farmwife: tall and sturdy, hair pulled back, no-nonsense --- how ironic, considering Ms. Wightman was called in on short notice, that she pulls off a characterization more believable than many of the others swirling about her --- a tribute not only to her instincts but to the simplicity and directness of Mr. Wilder’s writing. (I would love to see Ms. Wightman cast as Josie in O’Neill’s A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN --- but not by Boston Theatre Works; she’d wind up playing Jamie Tyrone.) John Furse is a dry, folksy Dr. Gibbs, James Bodge nicely captures a small-town editor’s wit as Mr. Webb, John Rosie Geier may be a shade too realistic as the drunkard Simon Stimpson but he blends in because he’s the town’s scandal, anyway; and Mia Anderson is amusing as a gossiping biddy (according to the program, Ms. Anderson is a Founder/Director of Drag Kings, Sluts & Goddesses --- sly casting on Mr. Southerland’s part?). Northeastern student Scott Adams (George) continues to show remarkable poise and the makings of a personality whenever he’s onstage, even when playing George as a bit of a goof and having Ms. Joy as the love of his life (Mr. Adams wears his baseball cap with the visor FORWARD, thank you). I would be interested to see in which direction Mr. Adams will grow should he continue acting once he graduates --- classical or contemporary? Stage or sitcom? Heart or Edge?

This three-act play is played without intermission and clocks in at a neat two hours. I feel it my duty to warn you not to imbibe too many liquids before the show --- the Tremont’s stage and auditorium have been reversed for this OUR TOWN, the bathrooms are now part of the setting, and audiences are encouraged to use the hotel facilities across the street --- which may prompt them to make a few cutting-edge comments of their own.

"Our Town" (25 October-17 November)
BOSTON THEATRE WORKS
Tremont Theatre, 276 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 939-9939

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