Review: Trinity Rep's Our Town

By: Feb. 02, 2007

You have heard the expression, "I would go see [fill in actor's name here] read the phone book".  For me, locally, that actor is Barbara Meek.

As the stage manager, Meek guides Trinity's audience through Thorton Wilder's Grover's Corners, New Hampshire in Our Town.  It is a play about ordinariness. Wilder references Grover's Corners place in the universe throughout the play.  Continually reminding the audience that the townspeople live what are tiny, little, lives, except to the people that live them.

The stage in the Chace Theater is set as a loft, with visible dressing rooms up in the loft, with most of the action taking place on the lower level stage.  The "behind the scenes" feels is carried from the loft to the lower level stage with framed head shots and promo photos of Trinity's productions on the back wall.

Director Brian McEleney deftly hits notes that can be been missed when some productions mount the piece as a tribute to small town Americana.   At this time, in this place, women were not treated as equal, the town is segregated by ethnicity, if not race.  Grace Metalious' gossipy Peyton Place has conceptual roots in Grover's Corners.

As Doctor and Mrs. Gibbs, Fred Sullivan Jr. and Phyllis Kay have an easy familiarity that is the strength of having a company of actors.  The character's 20 years of marriage is instantly accepted as believable, given the actors shared on-stage history.  Sullivan and Kay, who can, separately, chew the scenery if they wish, play their roles with incredible restraint.

Mauro Hantman and Rachel Warren give fine performances, though they don't have much to do, as compared with some of their recent Trinity Roles.  Joe Wilson Jr. and Stephen Thorne each play multiple parts in the production.  Most are minor roles of townspeople, who lend the Grover's Corner its personality.  The roles are played for their humor, with heavy accents and silly costumes.  The audience perks up each time Joe Wilson Jr. lumbers out as Howie Newson.

The town drunk and church organist, Simon Stimson, play by Stephen Berenson, was the character who left me wanting to know more.  I found myself wondering what troubles he had seen, why he drank, what kept him going as long as he did and why he ended his life.  Berenson does a terrific job with the role.  

Three young actors from the Brown/Trinity Consortium were cast in Trinity's Our Town:  Heather Wood, Eric Murdoch and Susannah Flood.  

Wood plays Rebecca Gibbs and an on-the-edge, Mrs. Soames. Wood delivers some very witty dialogue while hitting the correct emotional marks.  The role of George Gibbs doesn't require a lot of range or subtlety, but Murdoch played it well.

The revelation of the evening is Susannah Flood.  Under McEleney's direction, she took what could be a one-note performance and brings a wealth of humor and pathos to the stage.   Her delivery is big and broad.  Her performance, at times: hysterical.  The trip from the loft down the stairs during the wedding scene is belly-laugh funny.  Later in the performance, she faces the audience with big, sad, confused eyes, heavy with tears, and I couldn't help thinking, "Huh, I wonder if she can sing too."  If Ms. Flood can sing too, there is no stopping her.

I also want to comment on a clever, effective, "in" moment.  Towards the end of the play there is a scene in the graveyard in which Phyllis Kay's character is talking about her neighbors, the other residents of the cemetery.  The lights in the theater dim and only a handful of the head shots and publicity photos on the back wall are illuminated.  I might be wrong, but it wouldn't take a master detective to guess that the illuminated pictures are former members of the company who have died in the past 40 years.   If so, it is a lovely, and moving tribute.

A special nod to Rob Jarbadan and the creators of the sound effect design of the show; the "live radio show" feel of the play. The soda fountain scene adds a nostalgic touch.

The Stage Manager's role in the play is to move it, gently, along;  bringing very little attention to themselves in the process. Barbara Meek's performance is so subtle, as to be invisible, at times.

Brian McEleney obviously has great affection for this old chestnut of a play.  He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for creating a layered, multi-dimensional production of Our Town.


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