First act of 'Our Town' is just too cute for words

November 29, 1990|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Washington

Arena Stage's production of "Our Town" begins with a bit that's probably folksier than playwright Thornton Wilder ever imagined.

The cast members amble out, talking among themselves and looking at the audience. Then Robert Prosky, who plays the stage manager -- as he has in three previous Arena productions -- introduces the cast. He provides tidbits of real-life information, such as the fact that he and actress Halo Wines were both in the production that traveled to the Soviet Union in 1973, and that cast member John Prosky is his son.

It's a down-home cutesy moment, and it's followed by more cutesy touches -- including Mr. Prosky's cackling like a chicken -- when the actors launch into the first act of this now-classic text about life in the fictitious small town of Grover's Corners, N.H.

But the tone of the production, directed by Douglas C. Wager, isn't all tooth-decaying sweetness. Above all, it's uneven, as if the three acts were three separate plays -- a cute curtain raiser, a second playlet about love and marriage, and a somber finale about death.

Admittedly, some unevenness is built into the script, as it is built into life. The adorability of Arena's first act disappears by the last act, which takes place in a cemetery where a young mother who died in childbirth suddenly realizes how little the living appreciate their everyday lives.

In this act, thanks largely to the deeply moving performance of Christina Moore as Emily, the deceased young mother, the production nearly achieves poignance. The trouble is that the jovial first act -- with its get-acquainted prologue -- is so forced, the poignance of the third act isn't earned.

Besides Ms. Moore, there are some other impressive performances, particularly those of Tana Hicken and Henry Strozier as Emily's stern but loving parents. As George, the boy Emily loves and eventually marries, David Aaron Baker is a bit too callow. He's also one of several actors who needs to polish his New England accent.

As for Mr. Prosky -- an Arena company member for 23 years before going on to a career in television, film and the commercial stage -- he is, regrettably, one of the chief culprits in the cute department.

It's not just that he supplies chicken sound effects; during the first intermission he comes out with a coffee mug and chats with the audience. When his role becomes solemn at the cemetery, he doesn't seem to know how to handle it. His delivery becomes slow -- not deliberate, just slow; there's no energy.

"Our Town" was ground-breaking when it debuted in 1938. Five decades later, it's no longer startling to stage a play essentially without scenery or to make a backstage figure a character. Mr. Wager may have been attempting to re-create a sense of innovation. He would have done better to focus on the wisdom of Wilder's text -- to appreciate what we have and not dwell on parts of the past that cannot be reclaimed.

"Our Town" continues at Arena Stage through Jan. 6; call (202) 488-3300.

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