note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Stage Manager … Mark Bourbeau
Dr. Gibbs … Chet Orlando
Joe Crowell … Susannah Glickman
Mrs. Gibbs … Victoria Taylor
Mrs. Webb … Judy Maggs
George Gibbs … Chris Alexander
Rebecca Gibbs … Kari Stern
Wally Webb … Ben Toll
Emily Webb … Lindsay Bellock
Professor Willard … Allison Landino
Mr. Webb … John Greiner-Ferris
Mrs. Soames … Sandi McDonald
Constable Warren … James Lynch
Sam Craig … Jason Beals
Howie Newsome … John Battista
Simon Stimson … Jim Wagner
I have often mentioned how certain productions will bloom in certain settings. Sometimes --- it’s rare, but it can happen --- a town will turn collaborator, helping to set the mood while you’re en route to the theatre or church or wherever the magic will take place. In this case, the town was Waban; the theatre: the Windsor Club; the play: Thornton Wilder’s beloved OUR TOWN in a production by the Newton Country Players.
OUR TOWN itself is set in the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, 1901-1913. On the surface, not much seems to happen but as the play progresses, the bits and pieces of everyday life --- charming or quaint, at first --- add up to an epiphany at the end. Mr. Wilder focuses on two neighboring families --- the Gibbs and the Webbs --- in particular, George and Emily --- the Gibb son and the Webb daughter --- as they fall in love and are married; the last act belongs to Emily after she has died in childbirth: she says farewell to the earthly life she had known and prepares for the life to come. Presiding over all is the Stage Manager, a folksy narrator who serves as Chorus and now and then participates in the action. The play is written and performed in presentational style on a bare stage.
I don't believe it’s possible to give a bad performance of OUR TOWN; as long as the Stage Manager remembers his many lines and the Emily supplies the necessary poignancy, the production will win over an audience. Mr. Wilder's deliberately flat, stripped-down dialogue can be spoken with ease by amateurs (though they need to be acceptable mimes), and the simple mise en scene frees it to be produced anywhere --- and cheaply, too. Nor do I believe it possible to give a "great" performance of OUR TOWN: Mr. Wilder wrote a "nice" play about a "nice" town, and a "nice" production is what a wise director aims for. Those directors who feel compelled to update or re-interpret OUR TIME miss the point (last year, Boston Theatre Works missed it, Big Time) --- OUR TOWN was dated the minute Mr. Wilder wrote “The End” in 1938; he was both celebrating and mourning a world that had vanished long before the Depression and war 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 --- and it has NOTHING to with 9/11. (Audiences come to OUR TOWN to be comforted, to be reminded that America is still a great country --- as did the 1938 audiences living in their own gathering storm….)
But, back to Waban: when I got off the “T”, I was struck by the small-town setting --- the night was cold but clear and the streets were hushed. Though it was a Saturday night, a small restaurant was the only building buzzing with life. I headed down the street and into the darkness; though I walked less than two blocks, I thought I might wind up out in the country. Up ahead on the left, cheery lights glowed through the trees: the Windsor Club, where OUR TOWN was being staged. Already a crowd had gathered inside the auditorium, happy and chatty, warm sweaters and hot cocoa; friends and neighbors who had come to watch friends and neighbors in OUR TOWN --- the community feeling of Grover’s Corner was well reflected in its audience (a similar sense of community emanated from the Old South Church’s production two years ago).
Director Bill Doscher continued that feeling by bringing his production down onto the main floor with the townspeople moving in and out among the audience; the stage itself was reserved for Act Three’s cemetery, with the dead sitting side by side with the living (members of the audience who, in turn, swelled the cemetery). And Mr. Doscher, bless him, had OUR TOWN played in period --- simply, directly, and in period (greatly assisted by David Algers’ costumes); in other words, he trusted Mr. Wilder’s vision. He added some delightful bits --- George and Emily pledging their love then diving, red-faced, for the straws of their ice cream sodas; the feather of the town biddy’s hat forever brushing against a man’s face during the Act Two wedding --- and he was not ashamed/afraid to tug at the heart strings for the solemn Act Three.
The Old South Church and BTW productions each had a female Narrator, so it seemed quite the novelty to have a strolling, pipe-smoking male Narrator again. The arena staging forced the genial Mark Bourbeau to turn this way and that during Acts One and Two, becoming more Host than Narrator; he was far more effective in Act Three, leaning against the proscenium and becoming the Voice of Eternity. Mr. Doscher’s ensemble was a competent one; some members, even more so. Victoria Taylor brought a touch of yearning to her starched Mrs. Gibbs, with an eye on her dream of visiting Paris (“travel” became her motif, which added poignancy to the fate of her $350); Sandi McDonald made an amusing Mrs. Soames, and Jim Wagner was dignified as Simon Stimson, the town drunk --- the stiffer he became, the more his inebriation came across. The role of Emily is not unlike Shakespeare’s Juliet; she, too, must travel from girlishness to maturity in two hours’ traffic; Lindsay Bellock was more convincing in her earlier scenes than in her later ones (in the Old South production, the enchanting Amy Shea had her triumph the other way around), but Ms. Bellock did contribute a lovely moment at the end of Act Three: when George came to kneel at her “grave”, Ms. Bellock’s Emily softened into Woman as Comforter --- it wasn’t the spotlight that glowed about her; it was Ms. Bellock herself.
The town of Waban was asleep as I headed back to the “T”, its hush allowing me to reflect on what I had seen: I had been entertained, I been comforted, America was still a great place to live. In other words, here was OUR TOWN as it should be performed (regardless of its environment); you could say Mr. Doscher put back its heart that the BTW director had taken out. The sooner some directors realize they are but the servants of plays and not the rightful heirs, the sooner they will be regarded as artists.