BWW Review: OUR TOWN Astounds at Circle Theatre
In his director's notes, Matthew Gray anticipates skepticism from audiences as they settle in for his production of OUR TOWN, running at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth through March 9. He is aware that many (myself included) consider Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama to be a "quaint, old-fashioned, and sentimental story of Americana." How could an eighty-year-old play about small-town life at the turn of the 20th-century possibly resonate with audiences decades into the digital age?
Gray's production and his incredibly talented ensemble cast prove that we might just need OUR TOWN now more than ever.
Over the course of three acts, Wilder's play tells the patchwork story of the citizens of a small New England town called Grover's Corners. Brief episodes provide insight into the lives of characters from all walks of life; however, much of the plot focuses on the story of two families: the Gibbses, especially their son George, and the Webbs, specifically their daughter Emily.
Guiding audiences through these intersecting stories is the character of the Stage Manager, played by Kelsey Milbourn. From the moment she first saunters on from offstage, Milbourn immediately charms with her wry smile and confident demeanor, inviting audiences to take a journey with her into what they might think is familiar territory. In a role that can sometimes come across as dry and overly talkative, Milbourn shakes off the dust and makes it her own, playfully switching in between her roles as narrator, philosopher, minister, and - in one scene - soda jerk. She treats the denizens of Grover's Corners as family rather than characters, and when she talks to the audience about the values of love and community, lines nearly a century old strike the ears as a revelation.
Frequently sharing the stage with Milbourn are the Gibbses and Webbs, and the performances from both families are every bit as captivating. Gigi Cervantes plays Mrs. Gibbs with a nervous energy that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has a mother who wants everything to be just perfect for her family. Jim Jorgensen contrasts her as her calmly reassured husband Doc Gibbs, delivering his lines with a dry sarcasm that brings an added edge of humor into his household. In the house next door, Steven Pounders's Mr. Webb also draws laughs with a charismatic, excitable energy that speaks to the character's immense passion for life and all who live it. Julienne Greer, as his sterner but equally amiable wife Mrs. Webb, gives one of the production's more emotionally complex performances. Reluctant to speak to her daughter Emily about love in the first act, Greer's Mrs. Webb is noticeably filled with regret and fear during a stunning monologue as she waits for her daughter to get married in the second act.
The love story of the families' children, George and Emily, provides the play with much of its plot and emotional profundity. Jacob Oderberg invests George with several very human contradictions that prevent the character from becoming just another "boy next door" stereotype. While confident and playful with his parents and younger sister, he clams up around Emily, faltering in his speech and hesitating to come closer to her. On the other hand Emily, played by Tia Laulusa, is a girl unafraid to assert herself and speak her mind. Never one to play shy and quiet, Laulusa instinctively understands that a young woman as bright as Emily would never fail to let herself be heard. The performances of these two actors make the couple's courtship scene in act two all the more dynamic. Seated at a drugstore counter, oblivious to the world, Oderberg and Laulusa open up and turn away from one another - both physically and emotionally - in such a tensely and expertly choreographed way that their walk home at the end of the scene is both relieving and triumphant.
The remainder of the ensemble plays their parts with the same amount of passion and sincerity. While some parts may do more than others in the show, the actors perform with the conviction that everyone in Grover's Corners, from the milkman to the drunk to the town gossip, has a life just as rich as those of George and Emily. The play's message of the singular importance of community is as successful as it is precisely because of the dedicated work of this ensemble. They remind us, in a time when we interact with most of our friends and family through a two-dimensional screen, to really appreciate the complexity of the lives that are lived outside of our own.
The production team's efforts come through just as noticeably. Donna Marquet has designed a deceptively simple set, a blank hardwood floor with a wall neatly covered by nearly every set piece that is taken on and offstage during the course of the show. In addition to reminding viewers of the play's theatricality, the design also speaks to the everyday ordinariness of the story; that kitchen table onstage could just as easily be yours. The lighting design of Amy Poe and Lindsay Silva does much to set the mood of scenes as well as signal transitions between locations. Aaron Patrick Declerc's costume design is at once evocative of the early decades of the 1900's while being strikingly modern, again illustrating that the gap between now and then might not be quite so wide as we believe.
Toward the end of the play, Emily turns to the Stage Manager with sadness in her eyes and asks, "Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?"
It's tough to say, but Circle Theatre's production of OUR TOWN certainly brings us close.
Photo credit: Tim Long