BWW Review: York's TAFE Takes On OUR TOWN
One of the fist modern instances of "breaking the fourth wall," Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN is a story addressed directly to an audience - by the production's Stage Manager, the narrator and an occasional player in the story. It's a tale of the life of the fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire from 1901 through 1913, seen through the eyes of two neighboring families and the Stage Manager's decription of the locale.
The Pulitzer Prize winning play tells of a time when Grover's Corners was at the turn of the Twentieth Century, but for the audience, the theatre itself, as determined by the Stage Manager, is existing in 1938. The 1938 around the audience includes members of the audience who question the Stage Manager about details of Grover's Corners, and a professor who comes into the theatre to expound on the history of Grover's Corners in rather the same way James Michener tells the history of the Chesapeake River down to its silt deposits. The effect is both amusing and mildly perplexing, a staged version of interactivity between stage and audience.
OUR TOWN is often perceived as sad, as the third act tells of how the residents of Grover's Corners treat death and the afterlife, but even in death, OUR TOWN is one of the most dryly amusing plays ever written. It is a play rife with the sort of one-liners and asides that many comics could only wish they had written, because observations about daily life so often capture fascinationg ironies.
TAFE (Theatre Arts For Everyone) produced OUR TOWN, directed by its artistic director Diane Crews, as its seventh production. Bill Jones was delightful as the Stage Manager, the show's narrator and star, with a nice turn in a hard role. Wry enough to amuse, crusty enough to scream "I'm a Yankee," Jones' Stage Manager sets scenes and dominates them, a combination of overseer and deus ex machina for the show. Equally fine is Jaci Keagy, playing Julia Gibbs, the town doctor's wife and arbiter of all things, a woman who can count the meals she's served by the thousands and who doesn't miss a beat of life, even when her son George (Brandon Flemmens) is too lazy to chop te firewood.
Also worthy of note, Steve Brown as publisher Charles Webb, owner of the Grover's Corners "Sentinel" newspaper, and Micah Kannel as Wally Webb, his son who will come to an unintended and unflrtunate end. And then there's Andrew Texter as Professor Willard, the high-minded, long-winded Yankee professor who expunds at length on all there is to know of Grover's Cotners down to latitude and longitude (which, of course, are somehow in another state, not New Hampshire, entirely). Texter's ability to pull the humor out of the Professor's lecture is a joy to watch.
Overall, this was a fine production - it's a shame TAFE runs shows for one weekend only. If any criticism is to be offered, it is this: Wilder himself said that the only way to perform the show properly was "without sentimentality or ponderousness - simply, dryly, and sincerely." Director Crews affects a deep love for the show and her sincerity does pus the borders of sentimentality on stage, while the first act, already long, felt just on the edge of ponderous, a bit slower than it needed to be. The second and third acts were fine in pacing and the attitudes of the non-Stage Manager cast (Jones maintained a nearly flawless crustiness throughout). However, the first act pacing flaw is a common one, and easily corrected.
The next show up for TAFE is THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. While it will be great fun to watch in December, it could be more fun to be on stage for TAFE's Christmas production if you're a true holiday lover. Auditions are in October. Information is available on TAFE's web page, tafepa.org.