An outstanding production of Thornton Wilder's wise tome on the bittersweet joy of living, "Our Town," is running at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 6.
This impressive, nostalgic work is part of the theater's 40th anniversary season and features special guest artist and veteran company member Robert Prosky reprising his role as the Stage Manager. (The actor has played this role three times for the acclaimed Equity group).
Prosky, lauded for his performances on Broadway in "A Walk in the Woods" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," is probably best known for his role as Sgt. Jablonski on the TV series, "Hill Street Blues."
Directed with great insight and excellent attention to all the significant human details by the company's associate producing director, Douglas C. Wager, the play, which premiered in 1938, is as universal today as it was 52 years ago.
The dialogue is crisp and devoid of any maudlin sentimentality.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning script tells the life and death story of the citizens of typically small town America, Grovers Corners, N.H., (population 2642) in the early 1900s.
Wager has chosen to employ a few props for some authenticity or important business. Other times, the props are pantomimed by the actors.
A collection of interesting Early American chairs, a few tables and some leafy overhead branches leave the huge arena stage free for full concentration on the story and actors.
The actors are strategically placed by Wager like pieces in a good chess game around the vast arena stage. Simultaneous action and engrossing interaction keeps the show moving along at an arresting, natural clip.
The play takes place in three acts. In the first, the Stage Manager/Narrator introduces the townspeople going about their daily chores. We meet Emily and George as children, their families and neighbors, the milkman and his "horse," the frustrated, drunken choir master and other assorted characters.
Prosky as The Stage Manager skillfully directs and stops the action. Commenting fondly on the lives of the people, he offers general facts and wise observations in an amusing, folksy manner.
The second act deals with the wedding of the two young people and the homey bustle and babble of the elaborate preparations.
In Act III we share the sorrow of Emily's death in childbirth and see the dead in the cemetery (sitting on chairs above their graves) remarking on the ignorance of Man.
Emily longs to rejoin "life" and the Stage Manager reluctantly allows her to relive one day, her 12th birthday. Only then does she understand the wasting of life's precious moments by the living, the failure to appreciate the great importance of the "now" and sadly returns to her grave on the hill.
Director Wager believes in cross casting and has succeeded effectively in this with Margo Hall playing George's younger sister and Teagle F. Bougere as Emily's brother.
Prosky is a delight to watch (whether playing a silly woman in town or soda fountain proprietor). This consummate actor slips comfortably into the easygoing New England character of the Stage Manager but there is masterful profundity in Prosky's portrayal.
On a par with Prosky is Henry Strozier in his priceless interpretation of Emily's droll father. Halo Wines as George's patient, selfless mother turns in a finely honed performance. Tana Hicken is admirable as Emily's hard-working mother.
David Aaron Baker is an excellent George, making the difficult transition from the awkwardness and wonder of first love to responsible manhood.
Christina Moore in the sensitive role of Emily does well in the early scenes as an inquisitive, smart and spunky young girl. But Moore disappoints in the final, heartbreaking scene, delivering a technically good monologue without the proper in-depth motivation.
Jarlath Conroy stands out in the minor role of the morose choir master. Jaime Sanchez is fine as the tired, overworked doctor.