BWW Review: Warm, Witty, and Wise OUR TOWN at Portland Players
It is eighty years since Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Our Town first tread the boards of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. The work was groundbreaking in its day for the way in which Wilder eschewed theatrical conventions and sought to create a new kind of play within a play. Eight decades later, the play retains its innovative feeling - not because of its metatheatre style, but rather because, in a modern digital age where audiences are consistently bombarded with noise, sensation, and spectacular fast-paced effects, Our Town continues to speak in a quiet voice that is all the more meaningful if one stops to listen.
The production at Portland Players retains the requisite simplicity of Wilder's original concept: no scenery, only a few props and lighting and simple costumes, with the Stage Manager and actors consistently breaking the fourth wall. The look and feel honor the intent, as does the basic tone of Charlie Marenghi's direction. That said, simplicity is often more difficult than it seems, and there were occasional incongruities in the staging!
The set (designed and painted by committee) consists of a blue cyclorama and an assortment of chairs, two ladders, and some wooden benches. One misses the ghostlight on the stage which often begins and ends the plan and iconically suggests that it is taking place in a theatre. Paul J. Bell's period costumes are muted in hue and appropriately unpretentious. Jason "Chachi" Robinson does a fine job adding a kinetic sense to the space with the lighting, and he manages the contrast between the living world of Acts one and two and the world of the dead in the third act. Samuele Rinaldi delivers a balanced sound design that evidences none of the issues sometimes heard in this house.
Director Charlie Marenghi demonstrates a respect and affection for the piece, and he honors the original stage directions which have the actors miming much of the action - from opening doors to stringing beans. In general the cast handles these tasks well, though there are more than a few inconsistencies noticeable from the audience perspective. What Marenghi does best is elicit from the actors sincere, poignant and warmly human performances, especially from the six central characters.
Jeff Campbell and Allison McCann as Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs and Mark Snowden and Megan Bremermann as Mr. and Mrs. Webb deliver genuine performances. They find the humor and the dignity of their characters, and with artful understatement they rise to the challenge of becoming the "everymen" Wilder intended. Daniel Bullard is a youthful, appropriately awkward and winsome George Gibbs, and he makes the transition from boyish lad to grieving husband most touchingly. Tara Golson shines as Emily Webb; she is luminous as the young school girl, and she finds all the quiet yet intense emotional notes in Emily's graveyard scene.
Of the principals, only Michael Donovan's Stage Manager disappoints a bit in that he seems oddly detached from the action. True, the Stage Manager is, on one hand, an observer, but he is also the puppeteer in this play within the play, and one might have wished for him to be more a figure invested in and silently in control of the action.
The cameo parts were all nicely handled with fine individualized performances by Jessica Libby as a garrulous Mrs. Soames, Scott Patashnik as a hayseed Howie Newsome, Eliana Goodman as a perky Rebecca Gibbs, Jeff Newick as a rambling Professor Willard/Mr. Carter, and Benn May as depressed Simon Stimson. Rounding out the cast with good work are Tom Wilson as Joe Crowell/ Si Crowell, Reggie Bonnin as Constable Warren, Greg Villone as Sam Craig, Paul J. Bell as Joe Stoddard, and Holly Brown as a member of the ensemble.
Portland Players is to be commended for presenting this revival - not only because it introduces Wilder's classic to a new generation, but also because, in this tumultuous era of technology, of narcissism, of lives frequently lived at such breakneck speed that they do not appreciate the gifts of life,itself, Thornton Wilder's play speaks loud and clear, its message as relevant now as ever.
Photos courtesy Portland Players
Our Town runs from January 26- February 11, 2018, at Portland Players, 420 Cottage Rd., South Portland, ME 04106 www.portlandplayers.org 207-799-7337