It’s not easy producing a classic play. You carry the weight of the aggregate of all previous productions with you into the theatre, where you then ask the audience to set aside their individual ideas about how this play should look, sound and feel on stage based on what they’ve seen before and accept your vision with an open mind and heart. If the production is faithful to tradition, you’re rewarded by those seeking comfort in the familiar, but the other side of the coin can be brutal – dismissed by those prizing innovation over all. And the opposite is also true – a daring production can break all of the rules and garner critical acclaim while alienating a large swath of ticket buyers.
All of this is to say that Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” was not necessarily a “safety” pick for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 50th anniversary season. There is as much danger in producing such a well-known and frequently produced (especially on school and community stages) play as there is in putting up an untested world premiere in the Humana Festival.
But director (and artistic director) Les Waters, who came to “Our Town” with an Englishman’s fresh eyes, has pulled it off. His “Our Town” is a sensitive, beautiful and unsentimental production that honors Wilder’s groundbreaking script while offering innovative gestures that are wholly his own.
“Our Town” is a play that announces itself as a play from the start, a meta-device that, while now common, was still quite novel in the 1930s. The narrative is hosted (and at points manipulated) by Stage Manager, played in this production by Bruce McKenzie (recent Actors Theatre credits include Lord Capulet, “Romeo and Juliet” and Frank, “The Delling Shore.”), who introduces us to Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire – an Everytown that marks time by the passing of trains. The Stage Manager focuses on the households of Doctor and Mrs. Gibbs (Donald Sage Mackay and Joy Osmanski) and Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Michael Patrick Thornton and the very funny Wendy Rich Stetson), neighbors united when their children George (a disarmingly disheveled David McElwee) and Emily (the cheerfully grounded Rebekah Brockman) fall in love and marry, and the various townspeople they interact with in daily life.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, there is a quaintness to tiny, rural Grover’s Corners that some interpret as idyllic, but in Waters’ production, town life is not idealized. Sure, most people knew their neighbors and didn’t lock their doors. But they still committed suicide, died early in war or from disease, struggled with the tensions between ambition and comfort, wanderlust and duty. In Waters’ hands, “Our Town” is less about nostalgia for a simpler time and more about honoring the fundamentals of the human condition – we live, we pair off, we struggle to live good lives, or don’t, and we die, hoping there’s something eternal waiting for us after our earthborn lives are over.
McKenzie’s delivery of these truths is pensive, honest, effective – he’s not pushing good old American apple pie days here, but rather inviting the contemporary audience to draw parallels between their own lives and the lives of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, parallels that culminate in the devastating third act.
That’s quietly underscored by Waters’ diverse cast, which includes all 19 of the acting apprentices and offers racially-mixed Gibbs and Webb families without remark. Editor Webb is played with likeable wry wit by Michael Patrick Thornton, artistic director of Chicago’s The Gift Theatre, who uses a wheelchair after a 2013 spinal stroke left him partially paralyzed. Howie Newsome, the milkman, is portrayed by Robert Schleifer, an acclaimed deaf actor who performs acts one and two in American Sign Language, with interpretive assistance from apprentice Jamal Abdunnasir.
Waters also gives a subtle nod to this, our town, by casting Actors Theatre mainstays William McNulty (Constable Warren) and Ann Hodapp (Mrs. Soames), local actors Gregory Maupin (co-artistic director of Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble) as unhappy organist Simon Stimson and Dathan Hooper as the overzealous Professor Willard (and again as Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, in act three), as well as several young actors (MJ Farrell, MaryCharles Miller, Julien Allen) from the area.
Costume designer Janice Pytel’s deliberately understated contemporary costumes and Mimi Lien’s spare scenic design keep the visual distractions to a minimum, per Wilder’s original vision. The stage, stripped bare to the sub-floor and devoid of backdrops, employs utilitarian set pieces – two hardware store ladders, blue plastic chairs, fold-up plastic tables – while the actual production stage manager, Paul “Pablo” Holmes, is visible in the wings calling the show from a command center that’s usually hidden backstage. Lighting designer Matthew Frey keeps the stage from going dark even between acts, waiting to fade down the house lights at the top of the show until McKenzie has the audience’s undivided attention. Against this Spartan backdrop, Waters’ handful of dramatic visual gestures create effective moments of unexpected magic.
There’s not much dramatic tension built into the plot of the play – Wilder wisely packed it all into the structure of the script, and Waters’ production unfolds this tension delicately, allowing a powerful amount of silence to keep the pace reflective. In acts one and two, we get intimate glimpses into the everyday rhythms of life and the routine big moments that, at the end of the day, are only remarkable to the people involved. We know George will straighten out and become a nice young man, and that he and Emily will marry, and that their mothers will be a little sad about how their children are growing up but they’ll still put breakfast on the table in the morning. And as the Stage Manager forewarns us, we know then what act three must hold, but my emotional response to his portrayal of what the dead know and what the living cannot was no less overwhelming for knowing it. This is Wilder’s greatest trick – to make the audience feel in that moment exactly what we work so very diligently to ignore every single day, just so we can put one foot in front of the other and get on with the business of living a life.
“Our Town” runs through February 9 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.