BWW Review: Down-to-earth OUR TOWN at Burbage Theatre Company
Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is a poignant snapshot of a bygone America, a keenly observed drama which retains its relevance 70 years after it debuted - and more than 100 years after it's set. For those who've never seen the show, the Burbage Theatre Company offers an introduction to this classic with a few standout touches.
Set in the New England town of Grover's Corners, "Our Town" dwells on the mundane details of life: milk deliveries, walks home from school, shelling beans, gossip over the back fence, teen romance, birth and death. Wilder's (then) innovative fourth-wall-breaking Stage Manager narrates and moves the action along.
Director Mark Peckham has used the 60-seat concrete-columned Burbage space well, staging in the round with the audience split in four quadrants for the first two acts. Having the actors randomly distributed among the audience nicely reinforces the drama's every-day-ness. His decision to reposition all the seating on one side of the theater for the third act creates an interesting and effective refocusing. The use of local slides before the first and second acts is a smart touch, and the sound design is well conceived and flawlessly executed.
Vince Petronio does a superb job as the Stage Manager, bringing just the right blend of down-home folksiness and wry humor. It's a challenging role, requiring a delicate touch to capture the uncanny with just the right hint of a grin, and Petronio nails it.
Emily Lewis as Mrs. Gibbs and Melissa Sciara Penick as Mrs. Webb are the beating heart of the show, and they light up the scenes they're in with energy and authenticity. They are everything you could ask for in these roles, and it is a delight to watch them work.
Liz Hallenback does a clever turn as Professor Willard, and Walter Cotter is laconically crisp as Constable Warren.
The remainder of the cast works diligently, if not always entirely effectively, with the material. Valerie Westgate plays Emily Gibbs with a hard edge and exaggerated facial expressions that were frankly puzzling and failed to capture the young Emily's nineteenth-century naïveté. Westgate does make the effort, with her third-act turn as Emily's older incarnation moving toward subtlety. Andrew Iacovelli as George Gibbs similarly struggles early on, and their scene in the soda shop, which should be the show's centerpiece, is muddled and lifeless. He, too, is much more credible and moving in the third act.
Part of the problem is the entire cast's inability to maintain a sense of their imaginary props, a failure both in direction and acting. Once you decide to force actors to mime, you need to provide sufficient coaching and feedback to keep them on track. There is a great deal of sawing at tabletops and drinking from the handles of imaginary coffee mugs. Even the Stage Manager, who generally does a better job than others, rushes through the preparation of strawberry ice cream sodas in a way that breaks the illusion. And George and Emily exit the soda shop directly through the counter they just set their glasses on.
It is precisely because the engine of the show is the tension between the minute ordinariness of the everyday action and the intrusions of the Stage Manager that these lapses are so apparent and distracting. If the actors don't see the invisible props, we, as the audience, can't see them either.
The costuming is also confusing. Act I is done entirely in street clothes, which makes a certain amount of sense from the "timeless message" perspective. But then, Act II adds some costume pieces in a haphazard fashion that doesn't make a clear statement. And the Stage Manager's red shoes are just head-scratchingly out of place.
These are, of course, quibbles. There is enough life in the performances of the Stage Manager and Mothers Gibbs and Webb to mostly overcome any perceived issues. This is, on the whole, an adequate production, and if you've never seen before "Our Town," you are likely to be charmed and moved by Wilder's brilliant writing.
Our Town, directed by Mark Peckham, At TEN31 Productions, 249 Roosevelt Avenue, Pawtucket RI. Shows Fri/Sat 3/22, 3/23, 3/29, 3/30 8pm, Sun 3/24, 3/31 2pm; Th/Fr 4/4, 4/5 8pm, Su 4/7 2pm. Tickets $25, Students $15, HS students free; available online at https://www.burbagetheatre.org/our-town.
Photo credit: Jeff Church