All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Thornton Wilder’s elegy to unadorned simplicity, “Our Town” receives a warm, moving, pitch-perfect production at People’s Light & Theatre Company where director Abigail Adams and cast endow this valentine to life, with tribute to the hereafter, with the sweetness, honesty, and depth so basic to the piece.
This is no mean feat. “Our Town,” like most classics, is not an automatic, no-brainer vehicle. It’s a delicate work that takes discipline and nuance to present to its fullest and deserved extent. Adams, by emphasizing the pleasantness of the everyday Wilder is celebrating and eschewing drama for drama’s sake, even when drama exists, finds the gentle, matter-of-fact core of “Our Town” and mines all the poignant recognition Wilder supplies.
From sharing a soda to marriage, from parental reprimand to coping with death, Adams’s production depicts high, influential, or life-changing points of people whose lives are generally on a steady keel and whose experiences are the common ones “Our Town” reminds us we overlook or don’t realize are important at the time. She doesn’t opt for the big moment or the melodramatic scene, even when Wilder allows for one. She concentrates on common sense, usefulness of habit and purpose, regard from one person to another, and the quietness of the consequential that marks the genuine course of most lives. Particularly lives that are, as “Our Town’s” stage manager, historian, and experts point out, rooted in one small place, with imagined trips to Paris never fulfilled, with education being sound but not fancy or advanced, with the latest fad or fashion remaining blissfully irrelevant, with little knowledge or interest in a wide, wide, sophisticated world. The folks of Grovers Corner, N.H. are salt-of-the-Earth types to go about their business in a routine, usual, the-world-working it should way. Mornings begin with papers and milk being delivered, people make small talk but don’t care to get too deep, and evenings get late by 9:30 when decent folks should be at home. Adams and company even catch the right note of tolerance when choir members cluck about the constant drunkenness of the church organist but don’t cast him out or disdain him as much a pity him while wondering “where it all will end.”
“Our Town” doesn’t dwell on issues and hardships or go into, or for, psychology. It is a sharp, amiable, shrewd illustration of humanity. Adams keeps all human, capturing the glory of Wilder’s play, and offering a glory of a production.
This “Our Town” is never dull and never flashy. It understands the beauty of the mundane and shows it in ways that elicit honest laughs and legitimate tears while never striving for either.
Adams sternly resists going over the top about anything. About the only theatrics are miming of everyday activities such as pitching newspapers, billowing a cloth over a table, or stringing beans to have vegetables for the winter. Conversations, serious or ordinary, are direct and often pointed while hitting intended marks. Raised voices and high dudgeon are not part of Adams’s production. The inherent, if unexpressed, emotion and consequence of what people say to each other are.
Grovers Corners does progress. When Emily Webb and George Gibbs, progeny of generations of Grovers Corners residents, are about to wed, we learn that George’s parents never saw each other before their meeting at the altar and that Emily’s parents had similar wet feet. Yet, we see the strong homes both couples made, the standards they set and maintained for their children, and the upsets they overcame along with the triumphs they enjoy.
“Our Town” can be cloying or saccharine. It can be overdone and played for pathos. Adams has avoided these traps with a straightforward, well measured, sincere staging that shows why “Our Town” has a lasting place in the American repertoire. Few plays show humans are they are and life as a mostly agreeable journey as it does. Fewer plays put the afterlife, and the appreciation of one deceased returning to a single scene of a typical day, is such simple but profound perspective.
“Our Town” is a play to savor, and the People’s Light production makes it all so congenial to savor it.
Adams avoids frills from the beginning. She follows the directions Wilder gives about minimal sets and letting less represent so much more.
The basic set, by Luke Cantarella, shows two kitchens, the Webbs’ and the Gibbses’, signified by three dining chairs , two placed at right angles with a front-facing center one and all touching at one corner. Costumes, by Marla J. Jurglanis, speak of the turn of the last century, yet flatter by fitting so well with the performers wearing them. Preceding “Our Town,” as the audience gathers, People’s Light is having a hootenanny with members of the cast singing popular tunes from the period, the first decade of the 20th century, in which “Our Town” is set. At the first sight of Teri Lamm, who plays Mrs. Gibbs, I thought what a perfect dress and neckline for her!
Sound design is a bit more technical. It is done by Brent Hoyer as on old-time radio, which may not have been prevalent, let alone in vogue, in the decade “Our Town” takes place. Christopher Eastland, Zach Curvan, Mark Lazar, and Lily Lexer use a number of tools, utensils, and good old vocal tricks to create the roosters, bells, frying bacon, and ambient noises around Grovers Corners. Lighting by Dennis Parichy also contributes to the mood, and the careful reality, Adams and crew establish.
The actors are brilliantly in unison in keeping with Adams’s tone. Though each conveys an individual personality, there is a similarity in speech pattern, timbre, and matter that knits Grovers Corners denizens as a community.
Teri Lamm’s well-suited dress is less important than the prudent yet dreamy, firm yet flexible, practical yet affectionate figure she creates as Mrs. Gibbs.
Melanye Finister does no less as the Gibbses’ next-door-neighbor and counterpart, Mrs. Webb, who may not long to see Paris or much beyond the few blocks of town, but who is dedicated to keeping her children fed, well-clothed, clean, and admirably behaved and who can cope with, and make the best, of most situations.
As Lamm and Finister go, so goes the production. Everyone from Graham Smith’s wise, teasing Mr. Webb to Alexander Hamel as brothers who succeed each other as the morning paperboy, sets about making fully-fleshed believable characters who populate “Our Town.”
Small parts, like Christopher Eastland’s Sam Craig, one of the few children who leave Grovers Corners and returns for a visit after 20 years, and J. Paul Nicholas’s fact-providing Professor Willard are assayed with impeccable authenticity. Not even Michael Hicks, who as the perpetually inebriated Simon Stimson, could get away with scene-stealing antics, moves the dial of scrupulous sincerity Adams sets a millimeter from this “Our Town’s” true north.
This is a lovely, resonant, resounding production that fits in so well with the understanding of people, characters, and reliable play presentation that has made People’s Light & Theatre Company perhaps the premiere troupe in the market.
Claire Inie-Richards continues her skein of well-honed direct performances with her candidly smart portrayal of Emily Webb, a young woman who could find opportunity outside of Grovers Corners but never thinks of leaving and looks forward to following the traditions and lifestyle of the Webbs, Gibbses, Herseys, Willards, and Warrens before her.
Josh Olumide finds the restless, wondering, sometimes negligent youth in George Gibbs while maturing into someone fit to marry the estimable Emily.
As the patriarchs, Graham Smith’s Mr. Webb and Benjamin Brown’s Mr. Gibbs find personal ways to impart advice and inspire their children while showing the responsibility they have as editor of the town paper and town doctor respectively.
Famously, “Our Town” is at times narrated, at times orchestrated, and at times interrupted by a Stage Manager, played with Mr. Rogers-like aplomb by David M. Lutken, who has become a local favorite via his pastiche musicals chronicling the lives and music of popular entertainers such as Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash.
The Stage Manager is one of Wilder’s most cunning inventions, a man who controls what happens and ironically offsets the reality of each scene by putting an aura of artificiality and manipulation to it. Lutken is superb is making his presence and getting out of the way once a scene is announced and commences. It is to his, Adams’s, and Wilder’s credit that in this “Our Town,” the art is superseded by the integrity of the commonplace and real.
“Our Town” runs through Sunday, August 25, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401 North off of Route 30 West), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $90.40 to $35 and can obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org. Please note after Thursday evening performances, the cast and anyone who wishes to participate is invited to a Community Hootenanny led by David M. Lutken who reminds folks these shindigs are a BYOI affair, as in Bring Your Own Instrument, and perform as you will.