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BWW REVIEW: AN 'OUR TOWN' FOR OUR TIME

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Written by Thornton Wilder; directed by David Cromer; scenic design, Stephen Dobay; costume design, Alison Siple; lighting design, Heather Gilbert; original music and music direction, Jonathan Mastro

Cast in order of appearance:

Stage Manager, David Cromer (through December 30), Joel Colodner (starting December 31); Mrs. Gibbs, Melinda Lopez; Mrs. Webb, Stacy Fisher; Dr. Gibbs, Craig Mathers; Joe Crowell, Jr., Jay Ben Markson; Howie Newsome, Alex Pollock; George Gibbs, Derrick Trumbly; Rebecca Gibbs, Emily Skeggs; Emily Webb, Therese Plaehn; Wally Webb, Eliott Purcell; Professor Willard, Richard Arum; Mr. Webb, Christopher Tarjan; Simon Stimson, Nael Nacer; Mrs. Soames, MariAnna Bassham; Constable Warren, Paul D. Farwell; Si Crowell, Ryan Wenke; Joe Stoddard, Dale Place; Sam Craig, Nicholas Carter; Irma, Kathryn Lynch; Farmer McCarty, Douglas Griffin; Citizens: Suzanne Bixby, James Bocock, Anne Colpitts, Kevin Fennessy, Michael Henry James Knowlton, Jeff Marcus, Ellen Peterson, Bill Salem, Ann Marie Shea, Sophie Sinclair, Ralph Stokes and Lynn Wilcott

Performances and Tickets:

Now through January 26 (extended by popular demand), Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.huntingtontheatre.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-266-0800.

On the evening of Thursday, December 13, I attended the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Our Town, the acclaimed David Cromer revival of this quintessentially American play about neighbors in a quintessentially small New England town. Within less than 24 hours, incomprehensible tragedy struck in a similarly close-knit but very real New England community called Newtown, and suddenly the play's poignant and powerful message became even more striking: cherish our loved ones and embrace the beauty of each day, for we never know which moment will be our last.

In Our Town, which won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Thornton Wilder when it premiered on Broadway in 1938, the residents of fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, circa the early 1900s, go about their day-to-day lives in pragmatic fashion - delivering the morning newspaper and bottles of milk, cooking breakfast and getting the kids off to school, snapping green beans while sharing gossip, and doing homework by moonlight as the voices from the church choir waft across the valley and through the Open Windows of the bedrooms on the second floor. In the flurry of maintaining a household, earning a living, raising children, and, in the case of young Emily Webb and George Gibbs, falling in love and getting married, townsfolk overlook the simple joys of watching a sunrise or really hearing a train whistle as it sings in the distance. One's deepest thoughts and feelings are rarely shared. Instead, people talk of the weather and awkwardly dance around their real concerns.

When one of the town's younger residents dies, however, Our Town shifts from Main Street to the cemetery on the hill where the deceased look away from their past lives and toward the next stop on their extended journey. But the newest arrival wants to go back to experience one more day with her family - to relive her 12th birthday and fully appreciate every moment of it, sharing the love and joy and drinking in the beauty of their relationships. What she experiences instead is the shattering emptiness of the mundane - the rote daily routine, the dismissive responses, and the hurried goodbyes. Lost forever are any opportunities to really connect and really live.

In Most productions of Our Town, a nostalgic sentimentality obscures the real power of Wilder's subtext. The apparently simple dialog is usually rendered superficially by quaint Norman Rockwell-style caricatures. The central character of the Stage Manager, the play's narrator and sometime observer, is usually portrayed as an elderly father figure. The young romantics, Emily and George, are often depicted as childlike innocents rather than flesh-and-blood teenagers with conflicting hopes and fears about their future.

In this Huntington production, based on Cromer's long-running Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway revival, the director/actor has turned the old stereotypes on their ear. His Our Town is a living, breathing, pulsing community of contemporary actors first rehearsing, then becoming immersed in, the seemingly trivial but ultimately magnificent details of their characters' ordinary lives. These townsfolk don't wear restrictive period costumes or drawl in mannered Down east accents. Their clothes are modern work-a-day, and they react and interact with each other quickly and naturally, balancing today's passionate, fast-paced, technology-driven sensibilities with those of a bygone era of horse-drawn milk wagons and unspoken understandings. Hip but also timeless, this Our Town is at once classic and surprisingly brand new. The depth of its whispered dreams and unfulfilled longing is a revelation.

With a master stroke of directorial vision, conventional theatrical artifice has been stripped away to rivet attention on The Players. Two simple kitchen tables and two sets of wooden chairs are all that's needed to establish the homes of the neighboring Webb and Gibbs families. A few simple props serve as key icons that identify people - the morning newspaper that Mr. Webb edits and everyone in town reads; a colander full of green beans that bonds the Mrs. Webb and Gibbs together in wistful conversation; the baseball, cap and glove that define George Gibbs' athletic ability. Through such calculated simplicity, the audience is invited to use its imagination to see and hear what the inhabitants of Grovers Corners routinely ignore. In so doing, Cromer's brilliant twist at the end of the play is all the more illuminating. If we don't pay attention, we can't see what's right in front of us.

As the Stage Manager Cromer is a wiry young theater pro who skillfully guides his audience and his actors through every corner of Grovers Corners. Wearing casual jeans and a buttoned black shirt, untucked at the waist and rolled up at the sleeves, he speaks quickly and matter-of-factly, referring to his legal pad and using his pencil occasionally to point out landmarks and stage directions. He punctuates crucial information and events with pregnant pauses or piercing glances, underscoring his narration at times with gentle irony and wry humor.

Following his lead, the large cast also beautifully balances contemporary hustle and bustle with tender innocence, moving organically as one through the ebb and flow of Wilder's colloquial prose. They mine the pathos but capture the humor, too, more so than any other production I have ever seen. They also make us feel like we are in the company of old friends since most of the cast members are Boston stalwarts. As the ensemble weave their way in and out of the audience that surrounds the small playing area on three sides, we inevitably become members of the choir, guests at a wedding, and, finally, dearly departed in the cemetery.

Every performance is finely etched. Cromer is in charge but also affable. Melinda Lopez as Mrs. Gibbs and Stacy Fisher as Mrs. Webb are warm and practical but also women with dreams who are stifled by convention and the times. Craig Mathers as Dr. Gibbs is a weary public servant who expects hard work but also compassion from his son; Christopher Tarjan as Mr. Webb is more comfortable talking history and reading his paper than giving marital advice to his soon-to-be son-in-law. As young George and Emily, Derrick Trumbly and Therese Plaehn strike the perfect balance between teens eager to make their marks in the world and children uncertain of how to leave the nest. MariAnna Bassham as Mrs. Soames turns what could be a stock town gossip into a multi-layered effusive mother hen who unabashedly cries at weddings and doesn't care who knows it. Nael Nacer as Simon Stimson turns in one of the most heart-wrenching performances, personifying the lonely ache of an artistic soul who drowns his disappointments in nightly drinking binges. The fact that everyone in town knows that he's a drunk and yet intervenes only to make sure that he gets home safely each night strikes a particularly resonant chord in light of recent events.

The run of Our Town at the Huntington Theatre Company has been extended through January 26. Since its home is the 250-seat Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts instead of the 890-seat B.U. Theatre on Huntington Avenue, performances are selling out fast.

Don't miss it. Not only is this production a masterful retelling of a classic American play. It is also a profoundly moving - and healing - theatrical experience. Bring a loved one, and revel in its beauty. Form a memory that will last forever.

PHOTOS BY T. Charles Erickson: The company of Our Town; Therese Plaehn as Emily Webb and Stacy Fisher as Mrs. Webb; Therese Plaehn, David Cromer as the Stage Manager, and Derrick Trumbly as George Gibbs; David Cromer; the company of Our Town


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