Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Our Town &The Importance of Being Earnest"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi


"Our Town"
&
"The Importance of Being Earnest"

The ranks of "dead" productions that I've been reviewing continue to swell with OUR TOWN (The Theater at Old South) and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (Theatre on the Hill), both of which will be closed by the time you, dear readers, read this (just call me "Buzzy", as I pick among the bones). Both plays, coincidentally, were performed in church halls, with different results: Old South's environment quickly established a warm parrish community between OUR TOWN's actors and audience, while EARNEST – nearly suffocated – suddenly became its own Miracle Play.

* * *

OUR TOWN

by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Marc S. Miller

Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN, winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, finds a teeming universe in a drop of water: in this case, the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, just before World War I. On the surface, not much seems to happen in Grover's Corners: no one famous ever came out of it, a trip to Gettysburg or the Atlantic Ocean is a major excursion, and the biggest scandal in town is the church organist who drinks too much. But as the play progresses, all of the bits and pieces of everyday life – charming or quaint, at first – add up to an epiphany at the end. Starting with the town itself, Mr. Wilder picks out two neighboring families – the Gibbs and the Webbs – focusing on George and Emily – the Gibb son and the Webb daughter – as they fall in love and are married; the last act is Emily's as she dies in childbirth, 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 an almost bare stage.

I don't believe it is possible to give a bad performance of OUR TOWN; 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. Mr. Wilder's deliberately flat, stripped-down dialogue can be spoken with ease by amateurs of any age (though they need to be acceptable mimes), and the simple mise en scene (tables, chairs, two step ladders – and no props) frees it to be produced anywhere – and cheaply, too (director Marc S. Miller strips the production down even further; using only one bench and half a dozen chairs – and some props). Nor do I believe it possible to give a "great" performance, either: Mr. Wilder wrote a "nice" play about a "nice" town, and a "nice" production is as good as it will ever get (has anyone ever seen the "nice" 1940 film version?). No doubt Mr. Wilder wrote OUR TOWN in part to comfort and inspire Americans who were emerging from the Depression only to witness Europe prepare for another world war (Grover's Corners is free from the narrow-mindedness, prejudice and conformity of many rural towns – even though the Poles and Canucks dwell on the other side of the tracks), and I wouldn't be surprised if OUR TOWN productions start popping up like corn all over today's troubled landscape. But place it against, say, the small town of THE LARAMIE PROJECT and you'll see how "safe" Mr. Wilder's play is. But I've always had a soft spot for OUR TOWN and had never seen it performed (the curse of a warhorse), so Old South's production was a nice-enough introduction for me. Mr. Miller cast women in the traditional male roles of the Stage Manager, Professor Willard and Simon Stimson, which can work, as these characters are "neutral" enough. But the Professor was an egghead klutz played for laughs (and didn't get them) and the pipe-smoking, low-key Stage Manager became an overbearing carnival barker/evangelist in a pants suit – an outspoken woman strutting around in pants in Grover's Corners at the turn of the century, and the town scandal is still the alcoholic organist? Mr. Miller should have had his Stage Manager costumed – and toned down - in the same period style as the other women of the town. The theme of Grover's Corner may be universal, but the town itself isn't.

Mr. Wilder calls for absolutely NO props, save for those famous black umbrellas in Act Three. But Mr. Miller tries to have it both ways – the milkman has his bottles; the paper boy, his paper; Mrs. Webb snaps real green beans in a bowl while Mrs. Webb scatters imaginary feed to invisible chickens. Nor do the actors mime all that much: in the George-Emily soda fountain scene, the young lovers don't bother to sip the air, and during all those sit-downs at the non-existent tables, not one character mimes raising fork or cup to mouth (and the table level varied from character to character). Had all props been invisible and all actions expertly mimed, the audience would sense this was Mr. Wilder's intention and not feel that the Prop Department ran out of funds – or the actors were sitting there, holding invisible scripts.

The cast on the whole was competent – all right: "nice", but three of the actresses were better than "nice" (they also had the best-written roles): Shannon Keating (Mrs. Gibbs) was a warm mother hen, forever clucking over her husband and children, and she was wonderfully contrasted with Karen Barry's Mrs. Webb: firm but loving, and totally unflappable. Best of all was Amy Shea as Emily: 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 (is she a dancer, I wonder?). After just witnessing the Miranda/Lolita of NU's TEMPEST, 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.

* * *

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Matthew Oliva and Juliet Cunningham

Like any would-be sophisticate, I have quoted many a choice line from THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, but, again, I had never seen it performed, so off I went to see the first production of Theatre on the Hill, a new community theatre, and part of the outreach program of Boston Church of the New Jerusalem. Oddly, EARNEST is, like OUR TOWN, an almost fool-proof script. If the cast can summon up the sense that something Terribly Witty is going on and don't triple-underline everything, Wilde's still-sparkling dialogue will do the rest. To be honest, I didn't expect to see much; instead, here was one of the finest ensembles I have ever seen, nearly flawless in drawing room technique, mannerism and accents: Michael P. Joyce's Algernon was an amusing swine; co-director Juliet Cunningham hit all the proper chest notes as that dragon Lady Bracknell (I expected – and was not disappointed – to hear Ms. Cunningham's "A handbag?" boomed in the tones of the late Edith Evans: "A hand-baaaaaaAAAAAAG?"); once I got past the shock of John "Earnest" Worthing wearing Something Brown on his head, I found Douglas McNeish to be that nearly extinct bird – a Light Comedian, and a silly/charming one, too; and, in counterpoint, Bob Mussett's Lane was as droll and solemn as a cello. Best of all was Anne Rhodes as Gwendolen, so over-refined and -socialized a creature that the human animal in her died out long ago (no doubt Wilde knew many a similar debutante). The costumes were beautifully designed and the "sets" – simple arrangements of furniture and props – betrayed exquisite taste (much of the dιcor and furnishings had the "Beacon Hill" look), and the little hall with the audience only a few feet from the actors allowed for the most intimate playing, and every quietly inflected witticism hit home. A triumph in every way.

So after sitting through a grand Act One of High Comedy, while did I feel depressed by Intermission (a most Wildean paradox)?

Because nothing was HAPPENING during the performance. After a while, everything became TOO polished, TOO exquisite, and – ultimately – too NICE; if the goal was to make a beautiful museum-piece of Wilde's clever play, then the T. on the H. succeeded all too well. This EARNEST would never ruffle the feathers of the church elders (would anyone dare produce in this hall Wilde's sensual, disturbing SALOME? Well, it IS sort of a Biblical story….) Beneath all his civility, Wilde was quite the anarchist (he was not a leading Decadent for nothing; his own downfall speaks volumes) – and he wrote his play in a London where there were as many brothels – both male and female – as there were churches (and both institutions were well-attended). Time, however, has worn down Wilde's barbs into bon mots, and during all of Act One, I smiled and smiled and smiled – and felt nothing. And when, during Intermission, partition doors parted to reveal tea being served on real china, I felt the evening's mummification was complete and I would slip away at show's end with nothing to say other than a "nice" production had been born from what once had been a sharply satirical comedy of manners.

And then a miracle happened: in Act Two, Little Cecily entered in the person of Marion Leeds Carroll.

Imagine you've been attending a chamber recital; say, three violins and a cello. The composition is one you've heard many, many times, in concert as well as on recordings, so there are no surprises waiting for you in the evening's entertainment. The composition is tastefully performed – and you're full of admiration for the composer's genius and the players' skill at bringing it to life. And you think, "how nice", and that's that. And then, after Intermission, the quartet is joined by a tuba player. At first you think, "What the -– ?" and feel someone is pulling your leg (or limb, as Lady Bracknell would prefer). Or you shrug and expect something buffoonish to happen. But when the second half of the program starts and the tuba player follows along with the score, letting out notes of flatuence with skill and great dignity, you start to think otherwise, and the composition you've known since childhood takes on whole new dimensions.

Ms. Carroll was this EARNEST's tuba.

When she first entered, I thought she was playing Miss Prism. When I realized she was the Cecily, I thought: no; this cannot be. Ms. Carroll is at the age called Questionable and has a "character" face; why in the world was she cast as Mr. Worthing's pert, pretty 17-year-old ward? To give an actress/friend a job? Because no younger actresses could be found in the vicinity? No matter: as Ms. Carroll began daintily picking her way through Cecily like a baby bull stepping into a china shop, I started to smile and the smile became a grin and then I began to bubble inside as if I were filled with bicarb – and I soon found Ms. Carroll to be as enchanting as Ms. Shea's Emily in OUR TOWN, but for different reasons. Where one can imagine Ms. Shea living in Grover's Corners, even a blind man would declare Ms. Carroll to be miscast as Cecily. And yet, by playing her part in tune with the others, Ms. Carroll became truly hilarious not only as a parody of the Ingenue, but by sending up everything that her fellow actors spent Act One in setting down. Something HAPPENED whenever Ms. Carroll re-appeared, and she gave this beautifully embalmed production continuous needle jabs to keep its heart beating. I swear, I shall never look at Cecily the same way again – not even if Ms. Shea played the part. May the T. on the H. soon revive this production, and retain Ms. Carroll's services, for I cannot remember when I have enjoyed a performance so much, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Postscript: Another dangerous moment occurred when Barbara G. Papesch's spry Miss Prism pursued co-director Matthew Oliva's roly-poly little Chausuble all over the stage – Miranda/Lolita's grandmother was alive and well that night! So why doesn't the T. on the H. do Wilde's SALOME after all – and in this same church hall – with Ms. Papesch and Mr. Oliva as its Princess and her Prophet? I may not want to witness the dropping of all seven of Salome's veils, but I would give anything to hear Ms. Papesch declaim in true Bernhardt fashion "I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan!" The church elders may not approve of such a production, but cozy Uncle Oscar would rise from his grave and briefly be WILD again.

"Our Town" (9 - 17 November)
THE THEATRE AT OLD SOUTH
Old South Church, Corner of Boylston Street and Dartmouth Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) ???-????
"The Importance of Being Earnest" (7 - 17 November)
THEATRE ON THE HILL
Boston Church of the New Jerusalem, 140 Bowdoin Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) ???-????


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide

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