'Our Town,' always

Nothing that really matters has changed since this classic debuted in 1938

March 26, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

"Everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal," says the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," "and that something has to do with human beings."

The lasting force of this 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play might well lie in the way it reminds us of that eternity, that commonality, that community. The folks who live and die in the early years of the 20th century in Grover's Corners, N. H., might be terribly specific in name, age, occupation, aspiration and aptitude, but they're as close to us as our relatives and neighbors.

The thoughtful new production of "Our Town" at the Everyman Theatre provides a gentle reminder of how things don't ever really change so much, not deep down. The life-and-death cycle, the collision of innocence and rude reality, the imprecise process of falling in love, the tendency to take people and things for granted and miss them only after they're gone - such elements still define the species.

When George Gibbs, a pivotal teen character in Grover's Corners, is criticized for not talking to people anymore ("not to really speak - not even to your own family"), for spending all his time on baseball, it's easy to think of kids today with their faces buried in Facebook, their fingers glued to texting devices.

Speaking of the youthful, this Everyman staging is a collaboration with the Baltimore School for the Arts. Donald Hicken, department head of theater at the school, is the director; several students have small supporting roles; others worked on the sets, lighting and other production elements. "Our Town" is the ideal vehicle for such an enterprise, and the mix of professionals and students works smoothly for the most part here.

In the central role of the Stage Manager, Wil Love offers an authoritative, inviting performance, one finely attuned to the distinctive cadences of Wilder's text and so natural physically as to remove any trace of artifice. (It seems just right to have the Stage Manager be the one reminding the audience about cell phones before each act, as if those lines, too, were part of the original play.)

Matthew Schleigh gives a beautifully understated portrayal of George, registering the character's gradual awareness of self and others, the uplift and questioning that goes with falling in love.

Julia Proctor does engaging work as Emily, although her handling of the famous "Goodbye, world" passage in the final scene isn't quite as affecting and poetic as it could be. (Another indelible line, about the elongated postal address that connects a farm in Grover's Corners to "the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God," passes by a little too matter-of-factly, delivered by Sarah Arroyo as Rebecca.)

The two sets of parents at the center of the play have been effectively cast here by actors who convey much with a minimum of theatricality: Bruce Nelson (Dr. Gibbs), Emily Townley (Mrs. Gibbs), Morgan Duncan (Mr. Webb), Maia DeSanti (Mrs. Webb). Likewise assured and telling contributions come from John Geoffrion (Howie and Sam), Carl Schurr (Joe Stoddard, et al.), Stan Weiman (Simon Stimson), and Julia Brandeberry (Mrs. Soames).

Hicken paces the play with a sure hand, paying due honor to Wilder's ever-specific intentions while making things look fresh and unforced. The action unfolds seamlessly on Daniel Ettinger's spare, classy set, expertly lit by Jay Herzog. Norah Worthington designed the period-perfect costumes. Assorted sound effects, those on tape and those created by extras sitting upstage, are produced with admirable finesse.

Aaron Copland's iconic "Appalachian Spring," composed several years after "Our Town" was written, is aptly used as a connective musical soundtrack (after all, as one character explains early in the play, "Grover's Corners lies on the old Pleiocene granite of the Appalachian range").

One element in the production could use some tweaking - accents. They range from studied New England to vaguely European to plain, flat American. More consistency wouldn't hurt.

That said, the diverse makeup of this particular cast becomes a very subtle force of its own. It might have startled Wilder, but this is a calmly post-racial "Our Town," and that only underlines what this play tries to tells us about the value of shared experience in a world where "we don't have time to look at one another."

If you go
"Our Town" runs through April 18 at the Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. Tickets are $22 to $40. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.

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