For Gazette theater writer Bill Buell's preview of this show, click here.
Often derided and tossed aside as timeworn and old-fashioned, Thornton Wilder’s astonishingly profound play, “Our Town,” was revolutionary when first produced, shocking Depression-scarred audiences with a wake-up call to what is truly important in life. Perhaps that is why the play still resonates today — the current off-Broadway production is into its second sold-out year.
I have always found the play more than a little quaint, frighteningly twee and a bit on the preachy side. I know that by admitting that fact I have just committed a theatrical equivalent of a mortal sin, but admitting that, I am about to repent.
Albany Civic Theater’s current quiet and simple production of this classic is assisting my conversion.
On the surface, the play is nothing more than a wander through the daily rituals of a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the 20th century. “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity” are the titles of the three acts — pretty straightforward — but it’s the simplicity of the telling that solidifies the emotional commitment and honesty that are the core of all theater, and more importantly, our lives as well.
Veteran director Carol King (my esteemed colleague here at the Gazette) has assembled actors that can communicate the playwright’s intent without smacking one over the head with a message. King approaches the play in a way that is fresh, allowing the organic humor in the play a wider berth than previous productions I have seen. With a cast that deftly walks the narrow line between maintaining Wilder’s New England dryness of tone and allowing the humor of daily conversation to bubble, the play takes on real palpability.
Overseeing the evening — indeed, watching over and calling the cues for life itself — is the stage manager, played by veteran Patrick White. Possessing a comfortable stage presence, White’s timing and placement is perfect, as usual, but I found myself wishing for a little more warmth and folksiness from our tour guide. White never overplays or intrudes, allowing the message and wisdom in Wilder’s words to land with a gentleness that provokes reflection.
Chris Foster and Judie Bouchard infuse Doc and Mrs. Gibbs with a marital reality and sensitivity that is refreshing and honest. Over an ice cream soda at the drugstore, Jeremy Kester and Jessica Hoffman, as young lovers George and Emily, find the awkwardness of new love played just right. Both milk and daily banter are well delivered by Joe Albert as dairyman Howie. Judy Spevack spreads gossip with the right amout of indignant righteousness, and Dan Stott’s Simon Stimson finds the restrained rage in the town outcast and church organist. Anne-Marie Gorman Doyle shades Mrs. Webb with a quiet sadness behind a matter-of-fact efficiency that is rightfully uncomfortable and natural.
There are a couple of quibbles. “Our Town” is usually performed with no or very little scenery, to allow in Wilder’s words “the audience to hear the lives and concentrate on the people, not their things.” While the small walls that have been constructed are not limiting the action, they are distracting. More important, the anger and emotion of Emily’s final speech is muted, which wounds the impassioned intent of the playwright’s final message.
Wilder’s play still packs a wallop. The third act alone is a classic and visceral traverse that should stay with you and carry you through this town and the next. If you have seen “Our Town” a dozen times or never seen the place, you should take the trip. And if, like me, you thought the play was dismissible, the clarion call is now. As the stage manager says at the end of act two: “Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I do.”