BWW Reviews: OUR TOWN at the Theater At Monmouth; Wilder's Masterpiece Comes To Life
When Thornton Wilder premiered his new play OUR TOWN in 1938, I would wager that more than one person left the theatre asking why anyone would want to watch the lives of "ordinary" people on stage. Fast forward to present day where millions of people the world over tune in to reality TV shows, following the lives of "ordinary" people. The difference is, that there is nothing "brilliant" about the lives of the so-called stars of reality TV. However, Wilder's OUR TOWN is light years ahead of it's time, and the talented cast of his well-known play bring out it's brilliance at the Theater At Monmouth.
It's little wonder that MR. Wilder is still a household name; after all, OUR TOWN is among three of his works that garnered the coveted Pulitzer Prize (Skin of Our Teeth and The Bridge of San Luis Rey are the other two). OUR TOWN has been performed and read the world over numerous times in the more than 75 years since it's first presentation. Broadway productions, foreign productions, TV movies and major motion pictures starring the likes of Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint, Spalding Grey, Helen Hunt and even Orson Welles have been produced. And along with these productions, have come criticism and questions concerning the show's simplicity and starkness. In a world of overproduced theatre, multi million dollar productions, big budget films and CGI taking over the world, isn't it nice to have a little simplicity now and again?
Yes, indeed it is. MR. Wilder traveled the world over, but he was inspired to write OUR TOWN by Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans. And thus began his work about a fictional town, Grover's Corners, NH. The play examines the lives of Grover's Corners' inhabitants from 1901 to 1913, and unlike many plays of it's day or the present it uses very minimal set to bring attention to the story at hand. Much of the piece is narrated by the Stage Manager (Mark S. Cartier), who not only tells us of the town's inhabitants, but sets every scene by describing the town's invisible surroundings. We meet the Gibbs family: Dr. Gibbs (James Noel Hoban), Mrs. Gibbs (Grace Bauer) and their children George (Luke Couzens) and Rebecca (Aislinn Kerchaert). Next door live the Webbs: Editor Webb (Mike Anthony), Mrs. Webb (Ambien Mitchell) and their children Wally (Simon Kiser) and Emily (Hannah Daly). Dotting these families' daily lives are Howie Newsome (Ryan Simpson) the milk man, Joe Stoddard (Frank Omar) the undertaker, Warren (Bill Van Horn) the constable, Joe Crowell (Alexander Harvey) a paperboy, Simon Stimson (Josh Carpenter) the church choir director, Mrs. Soames (Janis Stevens) and Si Crowell (Max Waszak).
As the audience enters historic Cumston Hall, they are greeted by a stark, pitch black set furnished only with the theatre's ghost light. As most of the patrons have filtered through the doors, the Stage Manager begins immediately by painting a picture of a small town almost brick by brick and informs them that the show will be presented in 3 acts. He goes on to say that "the first is called Daily Life. The second is called Love and Marriage, and I'm pretty sure you can guess what the third one is about". It's this straightforwardness and breaking of the "4th wall" that immediately captivates the audience, and this reviewer in particular.
First and foremost, Davis Robinson's direction services the script so well, it's a wonder his last name isn't Wilder. He utilizes the gorgeous, yet sometimes limiting space to establish with picture perfect precision the daily life of these "simple" people. Though not technically a directorial choice (it is indicated in the script, and a feature of all OUR TOWN productions), his use of off-stage sound effects executed by the actors is brilliant; you can smell, hear, taste and feel what it was like to live in this town (my personal favorite is the sound of milk bottles rattling as they are being delivered) . He even utilizes the oft-forgotten portals on either side of the proscenium for some poignant scenes; most importantly to illustrate the burgeoning love growing between George Gibbs (Luke Couzens) and Emily Webb (Hannah Daly). Jim Alexander's stark set is marked by merely momentary splashes of color on the black canvas, making each set piece pop even more. His simple, yet fantastic pieces present the perfect backdrop for the performers to present their lives in front of. And Lynne Chase's lighting design is similar in it's starkness. However, Ms. Chase uses something that may be unnoticed by the average observer, but illustrates her knowledge of her craft; the intensity of lighting (especially in scenes that start at dawn and continue into morning) changes ever so slightly, mimicking the rising sun. It may not be something that an audience member might notice, but that in and of itself is part of the brilliance of the technique; your eyes adjust to it just as they would the sun's rays.
The cast. At this point I have seen all three of Theater At Monmouth's (TAM) current presentations (Year Of Magical Thinking opens July 26th) and I continue to be amazed by the talents of this ensemble (see my reviews of Knight of the Burning Pestle and The Taming of the Shrew). Mark S. Cartier is wonderful as the Stage Manager. His down to earth, easy going, simple portrayal captivates the audience's attention immediately. It's like sitting in your living room listening to your father or grand father tell a story about his youth. You feel as if you know him, and he makes you feel comfortable. He very seldom leaves stage, and takes on the arduous task of not only telling the majority of the story but remembering numerous facts, figures and numbers, and directs the actors and stage hands where to place set pieces. Not an easy job by any means, but Mr. Cartier makes it look that way.
James Noel Hoban as Dr. Gibbs is the no-nonsense small town doctor in every sense. Matter of fact, judicial and splendid is his portrayal. His wife (Grace Bauer) is a perfect counterpart, and lets us see a different side of married life than one we are used to; certainly the two love each other, but they really work together more as a team. Their chemistry is believable to the point of brilliance. Similarly, Editor Webb (Mike Anthony) and his wife (Ambien Mitchell) are a perfect on-stage pair. Mr. Anthony is fantastic as the small-town editor and though this role is not as comedic perhaps as the others in his repertoire this season, he will certainly leave you laughing out loud as he talks to his future son in law George (Luke Couzens) at his dinner table. Ms. Mitchell is an actress whose depth of talent and characterization is not one to be missed this summer at TAM. She portrays a woman taking care of her family, while dealing with the loss of her daughter to marriage so believably and with such warmth. She is truly an actress who wears her heart on her sleeve, and inhabits each role she takes on as though no one has ever portrayed them; and you may have a hard time picturing someone else ever playing them again.
Luke Couzens as George and Hannah Daly as Emily lend their youth to the even more youthful characters they portray. Their simple and touching story of childhood friends turned betrothed will warm your heart. Aislinn Kerchaert as Rebecca is also delightfully youthful, but she does all of the work herself without a counterpart. The "annoying little sister" comes to light in her capable hands. Particularly touching is her description of how a schoolhouse friend addressed a letter in the first act.
The rest of the cast paints the small town in such vivid, expressive colors, you feel as though these people have been your next door neighbors for years. This cast's work as a whole is so strong that I hesitate to say any more about the show. To see their portrayals and vivid storytelling is something to behold. If you have never seen OUR TOWN, it is a must. And if you HAVE seen it, discover it anew with this incredible cast. For tickets or more information on ANY of the shows in Theatre At Monmouth's season, please visit www.theateratmonmouth.org.
Photo credit: Aaron Flacke