BWW Reviews: Actors Theatre's OUR TOWN Goes Grand By Staying Simple
I've heard it said more than once in rehearsals for quote-unquote "classic" plays, and I agree every time: English classes are a terrible place to experience theater.
Even the most soul-stirring, life-changing script becomes as plastic as the uncomfortable chairs from which schoolchildren laconically mumble stage directions through unfamiliar dialects while trudging through boring academic scavenger hunts on the way to the final, merciful "Blackout."
Now having seen it for the first time, I have to lament what a tragedy it is that Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" has been stultified by generations of compulsive academic dissection. Much like seeing "Citizen Kane" 70 years after its debut, the audacity of this play can be easily lost unless you see it done properly and allow it to fully transport you to its world.
Bravo to Les Waters, the play's director and Actors Theatre's artistic head, who himself had never experienced the play before taking it on. He plunges in and finds the play's true essence, making it a moving, lingering, even haunting experience.
For being a product of the country's canonized past, "Our Town" is a bold piece of work in what it demands from both its artists and audience. If Samuel Beckett and Norman Rockwell created a play together, this would be the result.
That may be the strangest sentence about theater you'll ever read. Let me explain. Beckett's plays (done right) show the futile exploits of absolute nobodies and, by showing their struggles, make his characters heroic and universal for their trials. Pair that with Rockwell's ability to make the minutiae of small-town American life iconic, and you've got what "Our Town" is capable of being.
Waters' aims for that capacity in this production, and he hits a bullseye.
If you've never seen it unadorned, the stage of the Pamela Brown Auditorium is big. Epically big. In this season alone, it has borne a massive Victorian cityscape and a full-scale Tennessee hotel room.
So it's most daring of Waters that he makes use of the stage by completely emptying it and turning on every light in the room. The sweeping scope of the play is emphasized by the bareness, filled only by those same plastic school chairs, a few tables and only one noteworthy set piece (which I won't spoil - enjoy the "Woooow" moment that comes with it). The people and their words are the focus, the substance of the play. Their lives fill the three-act, two-hour-and-40-minute piece, and there is never a dull moment.
What makes the sparseness work is sticking to that quality. It is easy to be panicked by the simplicity of Wilder's story and attempt to stylize it. But overdo the folksiness or period charm, and you're no longer acting. You're indicating, and in doing so, distancing the audience from the immediacy of it.
Waters sticks to Wilder's directions and keeps the performances subdued, conversational, matter-of-fact and, thus, timeless. He leads his cast in understanding that everything in the script - the jokes, the sadness, the immensity of it all - is right there. The words only need be said, the scenes blocked just right, the pauses observed just long enough, and an intelligent enough audience will feel it in their bones.
Leading the audience through Grover's Corners is the Stage Manager (Wilder's innovative move: a crew member, the third pillar of live theater, bridging the actor-audience divide). Bruce McKenzie's no-frills performance carries the show, and it is a wonder to behold his simplicity. He sets the tone that lets the power of his larger points speak for themselves. He also has a few personal moments that are beautiful because he knows exactly how long to take them. Marvelous work.
David McElwee and Rebekah Brockman are a perfect awkward teenage couple, embodying the hopes and fears of young love in all their chaotic dimensions. Brockman carries much of the emotional weight of act three, and her tearful emotiveness could use some variation there, but she does fine work portraying the arc of an entire life, even into death. Louisville's own Gregory Maupin also does impressive work as church organist Greg Stimson. He finds all the comic notes in a tragic figure with precious few lines. It's great to see a true local talent on the big stage. Waters makes great use of the rest of the large ensemble, both comically and dramatically.
In a celebratory season that features old favorites and the expected batch of exciting new pieces, "Our Town" may stand out in retrospect for the impact it has, doing so much with so little. The final "Good Night" here means a lot more than the average night out at the theater. Don't miss this.