Review: OUR TOWN

by Lynn on May 16, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Molly Smith
Set by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by William Schmuck
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Musial direction, original music and sound by James Smith
Cast: David Ball
Tess Benger
Kate Besworth
Benedict Campbell
Aaron Ferguson
Sharry Flett
Kristi Frank
Charlie Gallant
Patrick Galligan
Rebecca Gibian
Jeff Irving
Billy Lake
Robert Markus
Catherine McGregor
Patrick McManus
Peter Millard
Julian Molnar
David Schurmann
Jenny L. Wright

This production of Our Town is a gem.

The Story. Thornton Wilder’s beautiful, timeless play is about a day in the life of a town called Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, spread over 12 years from 1901 to 1913. We see the play mainly through two families who live side by side—The Gibbs and the Webbs—although we meet other characters of the town. It’s just before dawn and Dr. Gibbs has jut delivered twins. The play will end with a funeral. In between two lovely young people named Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who live next door to each other, fall in love and marry.

The Production. Thornton Wilder makes every effort to let us know that we are in the artificial world of the theatre. Of course it’s left to the audience to imagine the reality of it all. Wilder’s stage directions say there is no stage curtain and no scenery. There is a ghost light in this production and some chairs on stage. The character known as the Stage Manager re-arranges props and some of the chairs. He directs other stage hands to set the scene.

The Stage Manager gives the audience the details of the town specifying the longitude and latitude of it with respect to the state of New Hampshire. In fact those coordinates situate the town off the coast of Massachusetts. Wilder being impish.

He notes the Gibbs’ home and next door, the Webb’s home. Milk is delivered by a Howie Newsome who has to control his horse who pulls the milk wagon. The newspaper is delivered by the paper boy. Breakfasts are prepared by both Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. Sound effects are heard to signify all this activity (clinking of milk bottles, doors opening and closing). And all the other activity and preparation is mimed. In the last Act, when one of the characters who has recently died wants just one more day on earth she picks an ordinary day. When she goes back to her family, every thing is presented not in mime but in reality. There are real scrambled eggs and coffee and toast served on real plates. All this is in aid of the person and the audience who need to take in the minutiae of the world she has left.

Director Molly Smith has created a quietly graceful production. She knows how to guide her cast to illuminate their characters and the play. There are moments of impishness, clear-eyed perception, appropriate sentimentality and a beating heart.

As the Stage Manager, Benedict Campbell is matter of fact and never sentimental. When talking about the paperboy, he tells us he was gifted and graduated from college top of his class and was going to be an engineer. “But the war broke out and he died in France—all that education for nothing.” It’s a simple line and when you hear it it is like being hit by a truck, it just winds you. Campbell’s Stage Manager is efficient in setting the scene and telling us the details of the town. but is also a man who has a vested interest in the people and the town and makes us care about them too.

As Emily Webb, Kate Besworth has the spunk and confidence of a young girl who is smart and loved. She has no qualms of telling George Gibbs, the young man she fancies, that he should shape up. And she can dissolve in tears when her world is about to change drastically.

Charlie Gallant plays George Gibb with boyish charm and the awkward insecurity of a young boy of a certain age who is smitten both with Emily and baseball. When he is about to marry Emily he is just as boyish but not so awkward, although he does have moments of uncertainty. You see a decent man appearing out of all that giddy youth.

The whole cast is fine.

In keeping with the simplicity of the production, Ken MacDonald set design is crisp and efficient. Set pieces float down from the flies. When Emily and George look out of their respective windows at the beautiful orange moon and to talk to each other over the distance between their houses, MacDonald has them stand on two moveable ladders, each with a ledge suggesting a window sill. Later, in a scene in the cemetery, the moon in a ghostly grey-white; the occupants sit in simple white wood chairs.

William Schmuck’s costumes evoke the early 1900s. His costumes for those resting in the cemetery—men in suits, women in dresses–are dark for the most part and then turn whitish at the bottom, as if they are dissolving into the clay of the earth. It’s a very haunting image.

Comment. Our Town was first produced on Broadway in 1938. Heady times in Europe and America when it was produced. It is deceptively simple but definitely not old-fashioned or dated. These are characters who have worries, concerns, anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity. They also are able to stop and reflect; wonder at the beauty around them; appreciate things that matter. The play speaks of people’s decency; their industry; their faith and trust in each other.

Most important I think it’s vital for today and our times. While it’s specifically American it’s applicable to Canadians. We have just had 10 years of a secretive, cold-eyed, manipulative Prime Minister. Our neighbours to the south are going through one of the most divisive, mean-spirited, vindictive racist elections on record.

Our Town quietly makes its points about questionable politicians; about what is important in ones life; about a slower pace of life to appreciate the living of it. The play even anticipates a faster pace of life for little purpose.

Our Town is the perfect play for troubled times and not so troubled times, in fact a play for all times. The Shaw Festival has produced a terrific production of Our Town.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Opened: May 12, 2016.
Closes: Oct. 15, 2016.
Cast: 19; 11 men, 8 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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