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BWW Review: OUR TOWN at Theatre Memphis

A Quiet Evening Out

BWW Review: OUR TOWN at Theatre Memphis

What a conundrum for an artist. Is it more effective to deliver art to an audience by any means necessary or to have the "vehicle" for displaying it match the work itself? For example, when it comes to the theatre, can a whisper ever truly be a whisper? Such is the dilemma for any theatre since 1938 producing Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN. While not as tedious a classic as WAITING FOR GODOT (a play about waiting for something that never happens), OUR TOWN invites people into the theatre to forget the extraordinary and bask in the ordinary. And, as you might imagine, it's an "ask" that gets harder and harder every year. If Wilder's goal in 1938 was to get audiences to slow down and appreciate the simpler things in life, he must be teleporting, texting and metaversing in his grave to see where things stand today. The world has changed a lot, and while the ideals in OUR TOWN are truer than ever before, finding people who can remember, let alone appreciate them, are becoming fewer and fewer by the DM.

BWW Review: OUR TOWN at Theatre Memphis

If there was ever a show that could be produced on a shoestring budget, it's this one. Still reeling from an ongoing two-year pandemic, Theatre Memphis perhaps chose this show for its minimalistic technical (hence financial) requirements. Intentionally, there is little, to no set, props, or lighting requirements. The show wants audiences to use their imaginations-not because a set couldn't be incorporated, but because Wilder wants people to engage themselves and connect with their very own personal and unique memories of breakfast time, getting ready for school, working in a garden, getting married and attending funerals. If OUR TOWN is to work, the audience must work. Viewers must accept the device, and then remember, reflect, and honor. For a 2022 audience, it's an audacious request.

Under the astute direction of Kell Christie, OUR TOWN is presented just as one might imagine it was originally intended in the 1930's-a bare bones production, with fine actors letting the words evoke the "feels." The cast embraces the stylized cadence of the era and never stray far from the herd. Yet, with so much going right for this production, one glaring element greatly detracts-the sound. One can totally respect Christie's choice to not put microphones on the actors, after all, body mics weren't a "thing" in 1938 and it hardly evokes "small town homeliness' to slap high-tech lavaliers to everyone's head as they pretend to feed an invisible horse or tend to a make-believe garden. Unfortunately, most of these actors haven't mastered the fine art of projection that would afford the audience (most of whom were seniors on opening night) the luxury to sit back and let the words wash over them while romanticizing the past. But much was lost auditorily and a handful of audience members could be seen leaving to their cars at intermission (not to mention the patron who was snoring so loudly he drowned out the actors).

BWW Review: OUR TOWN at Theatre Memphis

Steve Swift (of Sister Myotis fame) acts as the folksy narrator of the night and gently invites the audience to use their imaginations to envision a small town at the turn of the 20th century. He's the "tour guide" warmly suggesting that viewers accept the play's modest tools to elicit their own personal moments in time. Although he introduces us to two families (Gibbs and Webb) experiencing the ordinary dalliances of small-town life, followed by love/marriage and then death, he manages to downplay the moments onstage while keeping the audience in a self-hypnotic comfort. His demeanor and delivery (with a southern drawl shared by most of the cast despite the New Hampshire setting) sets the tone for the three acts with a gentle, warm, and respectful observance. His ever-present nature on the stage provides comfort to everyone that, no matter what happens, all will be well. He's perfectly placid.

Kellen Oelkers shines brightly as the star-crossed lover, George Gibbs. He is remarkably convincing in aging from a very young schoolboy to a dashing young man. His moments are always real, endearing, funny, and by the end, heartbreaking. He elevates his performance just enough to be memorable without detracting from the audience's own evocations.

Brian Helm and Gene Elliot as the respective Gibbs and Webb family patriarchs are both well-suited as the gently scolding, but always loving caretakers of their clans. Their performances are standouts in a sea of everymen.

BWW Review: OUR TOWN at Theatre Memphis

The rest of the cast don't necessarily separate themselves from each other...and that's a good thing. They all successfully represent our mothers, daughters, neighbors, and friends without the force of specificity. Likewise, the minimalism of the set, props and lighting nicely allow audiences to be co-creators in the beautifulness of this thing called life.

Although ACT I is supposed to represent the "ordinary" meandering towards profundity in ACT III, this production peaks at the beginning as it showcases the splendor of mundanity and fizzles by the end instead of demanding desperate realization of the appreciation of being alive. After all, anyone who has ever lived knows how the story ends. Most of us usually fade away, not with a roar, but with a whimper. A whimper which, like this production, may be hard to hear in the end.

Now through January 30, 2022

www.theatrememphis.org



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From This Author - Kevin Shaw