You can’t put on a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town without acknowledging – or at least knowing – that it’s a theatrical classic. Director Paul Barnes certainly must be well acquainted with that fact. His production of Our Town is a pure embrace of the qualities which make this play one of the most often produced shows in America. There’s no attempt at re-interpretation or adding of complexity – it’s a simple story, simply told.
The story of Our Town is half-described in the title – it portrays the daily life of a small town in New Hampshire, in the early 1900s. The focus is given to two families in particular, neighbors, the Gibbs and the Webbs, but there are plenty of other residents introduced so as to give one the full scope of the town life. Mostly, it is a story about life and all the things life brings, through the lens of a modest American community: a simple story about complicated things.
That simplicity is embraced from the beginning with the minimal set, consisting of nothing but a few tables and chairs when the audience first sees it, stacked and to be set into place by some stagehands as the Stage Manager (James Edmondson, a local favorite of the OSF) begins his description of the town. This minimal scenic design is made more profound with a backdrop of hanging chairs, which sets up rather poetically for the final act of the play.
The stagehands also serve as sound effects men for the mimed onstage action, a tradition in Our Town productions. Maybe it was just opening night jitters, but the stagehands seemed a little less than fully committed to this job, and sometimes their inconsistent performance distracted from the action more than it enhanced it.
James Edmondson gives the role of Stage Manager, and thus the entire play, a ponderous tone, delivering his lines as if there’s some secret truth he’s holding back – and later, as if to admit that even he doesn’t quite know what that truth is. Emily Serdahl plays a very sweet and charming Emily Webb, but with that she loses some of the smug cleverness that the role calls for. Part of the great profundity of the play is how full of potential young Emily is, and that’s diminished when she’s played so meekly. Serdahl’s performance is likeable, though, and in the end her earnestness and beaming goodness makes her a bright central point of the whole production.
Connor Bryant as George Gibbs, Emily’s classmate and friend, was terribly sincere. He doesn’t have as much deep emotional material as some of the other actors, playing a very down to earth boy who doesn’t much like school and wants to be a farmer, but his performance was nevertheless one of the most heart-wrenching. Right along with him were his mother Mrs. Gibbs, played by Rachel Kostrna, and her neighbor, Mrs. Webb, played by Autumn Buck, who is downright practical right up until she tries to explain her tears at her daughter’s wedding, in a truly striking moment of the play.
The actors as a group did well with the piece, miming their action believably, but not quite embracing the folksy manner of Thornton’s dialogue in favor of extremely well enunciated speech – obviously a good habit for an actor, but one that could be a little softened when throwing the word “ain’t” around every sentence. Otherwise, the pace of the actors’ exchanges were slow for an already slow script, clocking the three-act play in at two hours and 45 minutes, including intermissions. It’s not slow enough or long enough to lose the audience, but it verges on it, at times.
Our Town is always a play worth seeing for the first time, and SOU’s production is worth seeing even if it’s your fifth or 20th viewing of the play. Its aim is clearly to perform Wilder’s script in its purest form, and it largely succeeds. More than that, it succeeds at what any good Our Town production succeeds at; if you haven’t teared up at least once by the end of the play, well, maybe you just weren’t paying attention.
Our Town will be playing at the Center Stage Theatre through Nov. 24th. You can visit sou.edu/theater/ourtown for showtime and ticket price information.