BWW Review: Time Passes and Life Goes On in Deaf West Theatre's OUR TOWN at Pasadena Playhouse
On an ordinary Sunday evening in Pasadena, a theatre audience gathered to watch the opening night performance of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, OUR TOWN. Everyone was prepared to have a wonderful time and those in attendance were not disappointed.
Later that same night, another audience gathered in Las Vegas for a concert that would claim the lives of nearly 60 people at the hands of a lone gunman. No one was prepared for the horror of that event. It was just another Sunday night...until it wasn't.
We think we have all the time in the world.
"That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance...To spend and waste time as though you had a million years." - Simon Stimson, Our Town
The passage of time, and how we treat it, is one of the many thought-provoking subjects Wilder raises in OUR TOWN. His profound insight into the meaning of life and the observations his characters make are succinctly offered, without sentimentality or apology. It is Wilder's most well-known work, a classic of the American theatre that presents the cyclical nature of life in three acts and a town called Grover's Corners, where birth, death, love, and marriage, are shown in all their everyday glory.
This co-production by Deaf West Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse is distinct in that it accomplishes the daunting task of telling a familiar story in a new way without betraying the playwright's original intent. With a cast that includes both deaf and hearing actors, it actively engages the audience, asking it to look at the play with fresh eyes. The integration of American Sign Language adds a sturdiness to the characters in a very physical way, creating a level of communication that makes for beautiful storytelling.
Some of the actors, like Annika Marks (Mrs. Webb), speak and sign at the same time. Others, like Sandra Mae Frank, who plays her daughter Emily, sign and have a hearing counterpart who voices the role (Sharon Pierre-Louis). Their connection is particularly sweet and intuitive. For Jane Kaczmarek, the Stage Manager, three deaf actors partner with her at different times to sign and narrate the story: Alexandria Wailes (doubling as Mrs. Gibbs), Troy Kotsur, (also playing a bitter Simon Stimson), and Russell Harvard (doubling as Mr. Webb). The result of all the various combinations is that it establishes an underlying sense of community that resonates far beyond what you see and hear on stage.
The cast is exceptional, with Marks and Wailes epitomizing the strong, no-nonsense women of character and backbone who tirelessly kept their families on track at the turn of the century. Harvard's Mr. Webb is an intriguing man whose advice to George (Deric Augustine) his future son-in-law on the morning of his wedding provides one of the best comic scenes in the play and, as Dr. Gibbs, Judd Williford imparts wisdom in the kind of roundabout manner that actually makes an impression on the boy. Kaczmarek's folksy approach to the Stage Manager comes with a self-deprecating smile and honestly, is there anything Kotsur can't do?
The detail and care given to bringing each of the townspeople to life is abundantly clear in Sheryl Kaller's direction. The Tony-nominated director understands the delicate balance within the play and never lets it veer off into precious territory. She does however direct one of the funniest versions of OUR TOWN I've ever seen.
Kaller uncovers many moments of humor that emerge quite naturally because you're seeing these particular actors in these particular roles. Dot-Marie Jones as Mrs. Soames, a woman who can't get enough of weddings, and Harold Foxx as milkman Howie Newsome are two of the most obvious examples however moments such as Kotsur's transition from one character to another are just as comical. It is an OUR TOWN that will make you laugh out loud at its grounded eccentricities, and that is an uncommon delight.
David Meyer's scenic design and Jared A. Sayeg's lighting expose the beauty of the Playhouse's natural assets and one wonders what a 1939 audience who sat in this same theater and witnessed another production of OUR TOWN might have thought.
As Wilder rounds the corner to address death in the third act, the production settles into a graceful conclusion as picturesque as a surrealist Victorian oil painting. Time is of the essence, it seems to say, and this haunting OUR TOWN never lets us forget it.
Sept 26 - Oct 22, 2017
Deaf West Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with two intermissions
Photo credit: Jenny Graham