Astin makes `Our Town' fresh again

THEATER

Goal of restoring Hopkins theater is off to a good start

October 23, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is a play that is all too often badly taught. But director John Astin's production at Theatre Hopkins provides a good example of what an inspired teacher can do with this chestnut.

The production, which opened last weekend at the Baltimore Museum of Art and moves to Theatre Hopkins tomorrow, reminds you how magnificently moving and innovative a play this is.

As much as it is a tale of life in fictitious, turn-of-the-20th-century Grover's Corners, N.H., Our Town also celebrates the sheer joy of theater - the basic art of creating something out of nothing, i.e., populating a bare stage with characters and stories. Two tables with straight-backed chairs are all it takes to suggest the separate households of the play's two main families, the Webbs and the Gibbses, and a pair of ladders substitute for second-story bedroom windows.

Because of the something-out-of-nothing theme, Our Town is an ideal play for Astin's larger purpose. Best known as the actor who played Gomez in ABC's The Addams Family in the mid-1960s, Astin has been teaching theater at the Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater, since 2001. His ultimate goal is to restore the university's erstwhile theater department, and this production is an encouraging sign.

One-third of Astin's large cast consists of his students (the others are seasoned adult actors). And, the sensitive, intelligent, unsentimental performances of student actors Loren Dunn and Kateri Chambers in the lead roles of the young lovers, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, are among the high points of the production. In the scene in which George and Emily first fall in love - over strawberry ice cream sodas - each actor hangs on the other's words as if the words themselves were essential to sustaining life, as indeed they are for these characters.

Similarly strong performances are given by the adult actors portraying George and Emily's loving, but practical, parents - Chris Graybill and Laura Gifford as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and Michael O'Connell and Katherine Lyons as Mr. and Mrs. Webb.

Ironically, just about the only tentative performance is that of Astin himself, who takes the crucial role of Stage Manager, the character who introduces the play and narrates the action. But whether or not Astin eases into the role as the run continues, he has carried off his pedagogical and directorial duties with admirable skill. Our Town is a play about not taking anything for granted, and Astin's achievements in staging it shouldn't be taken for granted, either.

Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Nov. 2 and 9, with matinees at 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 9. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-516-7159.

Olney's 2004 lineup

Olney Theatre Center's 2004 season will run the gamut from Noel Coward to political theater.

Here's the seven-show lineup: Having Our Say, by Emily Mann, the story of the centenarian Delany sisters (Feb. 18-March 21); Oh, Coward, by Noel Coward, a musical revue (April 14-May 16); Blithe Spirit, also by Coward, a comedy about a couple plagued by the ghost of the husband's first wife; Necessary Targets, by Eve Ensler, about two American women at a Bosnian refugee camp (May 26-June 27); Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, based on a covert 1941 meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr (July 7-Aug. 8); Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner's account of a 19th-century African woman who became a sideshow attraction (Aug. 25-Sept. 26); and Carousel, by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the 1945 musical about love and loss in a New England mill town.

Olney has also announced two special attractions: Le Tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's one-act adaptation of Bizet's opera (Feb. 18-22), and Raw, a cabaret act featuring Jane Pesci-Townsend (Aug. 12-14).

Subscriptions to the seven-play main season range from $126 to $196. For more information, call 301-924-3400.

Inside Center Stage

Center Stage's annual open house, Backstage at Center Stage, will take place from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. Once again, the behind-the-scenes demonstrations will include a lesson in how to make stage blood, a perennial favorite at Halloween time.

In addition, tours of the costume, prop and scenery shops will be offered every half-hour, beginning at 10:15; props and costumes will be on sale; and attendees can be photographed (for a small fee) in a Center Stage costume. Admission is free, but tour reservations are requested in advance. Call 410-332-0033 or e-mail backstage@centerstage.org.

There she is

Here's a beaut of an item: A beauty contest is the climax of the Broadway musical Hairspray, and yesterday's matinee in New York was attended by three winners of this country's highest-profile beauty contest - Miss America.

During the curtain call, Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004, was introduced on stage by Hairspray co-stars Harvey Fierstein and Kathy Brier. Dunlap used the opportunity to promote her platform of cultural diversity and inclusion, which mirrors the themes of the John Waters-movie-turned-musical. Joining Dunlap were Debbye Turner, Miss America 1990, and Gretchen Carlson, Miss America 1989. All three appeared on stage coiffed in 1960s-style wigs created for the occasion by Hairspray wig designer Paul Huntley.

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