"...A rare play that embraces both the sentimentality and existential terrors of daily life"
The small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, might be considered by some as the Golden Age of America, to which many long to return. The problem is - it doesn’t exist, nor has it ever. Thornton Wilder invented the place as the setting for his quaint little Pulitzer-Prize-winning meta-drama, “Our Town,” playing January 11th – February 16th on the Kentwood Stage at Westchester Playhouse in a dramatic restaging.
Produced by Kathy Dershimer and directed by Stanley Brown, the award-winning Kentwood Players has a long, rich history of classic entertainment at this community theatre with this production definitely ranking among their best work.
First hitting stages in 1938, “Our Town” chronicles the insulated life and times of the citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, beginning just after the turn of the century and ending in 1913, before the two world wars changed everything. Ultimately, Wilder's masterpiece is a copious, theatrical microcosm, a provocative distillation of a close-knit community, and a timeless commentary on nothing less than the tragicomedy of human existence.
Any crisp, beautiful morning, you’ll find Joe Crowell delivering the paper to Doc Gibbs, Howie Newsome delivering the milk, and the Webb and Gibbs households sending their children, Emily and George, off to school. Their mothers attend choir practice at the church, and their fathers talk about events of the day in the town square. World events are not discussed, as if a world beyond the confines of the town are as distant and irrelevant as the planet Mars.
“Our Town” seems like an easy play, a simple play, but it’s not. Sure, it’s about small-town family life in early 20th century New England, and it’s simple in the sense that you don’t even need much of a set—just a couple of ladders and some chairs.
The props are mimed, even the costumes are artfully simple, and not even necessarily period. Lights and sound are dramatic and remarkable, but they’re almost beside the point. But “Our Town” isn’t pretending not to be a play. Characters frequently speak directly to the audience. They know you’re out there - they expect you’re watching. This is storytelling at its most basic and direct.
Yet, astonishingly, after eighty plus years, Wilder’s play still works; and one of the reasons here is Dan Adams’ own fine performance, presiding over the whole thing as the Stage Manager. He also assumes a few other parts in the production – as minister at the wedding, as the soda shop owner, and also a local townsman. He’s not the actual stage manager for the production, of course: that would be Shari Barrett who also serves as one of the play’s characters, “Lady in the Box.”
Mr. Adams (whose previous appearance on this stage was last year’s “The Crucible,”) has an easy, laid-back Will Rogers-like stage presence, an engaging cracker-barrel, home-spun demeanor, and quite literally makes the part look easy, playing the character as a quasi-Brechtian narrator who conjures up daily life in Grover’s Corners with a coolly observant eye. And in this multi-dimensional, meta-theatrical universe, he acts as a Charon of sorts, while spouting facts about the place (4 percent of its 2,000 or so residents are Socialists, and only a handful are drunks), and ferrying the actors as well as the audience between different times and scenes.
But Wilder’s Stage Manager serves as more than a narrator, more than a stage manager…perhaps even a deity of some kind. Appearing ethereal and almost transmundane, the play dances around the edges of that idea but never says. He seems to be both human and omnipresent.
He can also manipulate time, which, yes, is a bit weird. In fact, the Stage Manager seems to exist separate and outside of Grover’s Corners, stepping into and out of various scenes at will. He can look at a little boy and tell us that the little boy will die fighting in World War I. And he can see us. Characters in plays typically aren't supposed to see and communicate with the audience, which implies that he may exist also in our time. Moreover, the Stage Manager knows that he’s part of a play, even wanting a copy of the play to go into a time capsule. Whoa. That means he exists even outside of this play. Somehow, someway, he isn’t simply some objective observer making notes on a clipboard. He’s orchestrating the whole thing.
Despite the spareness of the trappings, “Our Town’s” main theme is humankind’s place and purpose in the universe. It’s about important things like life and love and the passage of time, about death and what comes next. “Our Town” doesn’t preach, however…it simply observes. It doesn’t beat you over the head, because it doesn’t have to. It presents a story of two families that become one, and the community in which they live.
A few simple days in the life, with a couple of flashbacks thrown in for good measure, and we have a glimpse of the way things used to be in one corner of the world. Secure from our seat in the audience, we watch Wilder unfold the universal, the common, the omnipresent, and the inescapable. In the hands of Director Brown, along with the preponderant Stage Manager and the wonderful ensemble of actors, the story of “Our Town” sneaks up on you, infuses your brain and refuses to let you be.
The story is primarily the tale of the Gibbs family and the Webb family, neighbors in the little town of Grover’s Corners. Mrs. Gibbs (Jenny Boone) and Mrs. Webb (Michele Selin) start the day early, running their homes with the efficiency of army generals. Mr. Gibbs (Harold Dershimer) is the town doctor, and Mr. Webb (Shawn Plunkett) is the editor of the local paper—which comes out twice a week. Director Brown, in a sly bit of double casting, plays the town’s law officer, Constable Warren, as well as the local undertaker, Joe Stoddard.
The spotlight child of the Gibbs clan is son George (Stephen Anthony Bailey). George is the All-American golden boy and class president, but gets taken down a few pegs by Emily Webb. His acceptance of her criticism and his vow to change speaks to the quality of his character, yet his decision to forgo agriculture school is a bit of a conundrum.
His counterpart in the Webb family is daughter Emily (Gabrielle Sigrist). As the girl next door, she’s bright and speaks her mind, but her life is cut short when she dies bearing her second child at the age of 26. We see her grow from a sweet kid to a blushing bride over the course of the show, and her likeability makes her early death that much more poignant.
Allison Cunningham and Sadie Fisher are also principal players in the Grover’s Corners population. Ms. Cunningham is George’s pesky little sister Rebecca Gibbs and Ms. Fisher plays Emily’s little brother Wally Webb, whose untimely death later from a burst appendix devastated the family. Ms. Fisher also is paperboy Joe Crowell, as well as his younger brother Si Crowell, who takes over Joe’s duties out of a sense of obligation, and also a baseball player.
Ethan Trejo portrays the local milkman making deliveries as well as extended family member Sam Craig, Emily’s cousin, home for Emily’s funeral. Sam, an outsider from out of town, parallels the audience’s own surprise of events that have recently taken place in Grover’s Corners. Then there’s gossipy Mrs. Soames (Judy Rosenfeld) who loves to cry at weddings almost as much as she likes talking behind people’s backs. Ms. Rosenfeld is also Woman in the Balcony. Aly Etienne is in the role of Professor Willard, and also fields balls with Sadie Fisher.
Simon Stimson (Eddie Ed O’Brien), the town drunk and choir director, is the sore thumb that sticks out in “Our Town's” perfect tableau of small town life. His drinking problem is by far the most serious in town, yet no one makes an effort to reach out to him. Because of this, Simon is the play’s most mysterious character. But what drove him to alcohol? And why hasn’t he been fired from his job? There is a noticeable lack of information regarding Simon, and it reflects the seamier side of this small town life.
Thirteen years have passed by the opening of the second act, and George and Emily are about to get married. In a few more years, several major characters will be dead, some before their time. The Stage Manager tells us which paperboy will grow up to have a promising future as an engineer, only to be cut down in the First World War.
He knows whether the sun will rise in a cloudless sky tomorrow, and how all of Emily and George's hopes will be dashed. In a dramatic, surreal but heart-breaking finish, Stage Manager focuses on eternity in a scene highlighting the cemetery, as we see tragic ends to many of the familiar townspeople, old and young, with many regrets of not treasuring the simple joys of life.
From the beginning of the play, the Stage Manager introduces the characters only to give their death dates. It’s like he’s making us read a book backwards – we already know what happens. However, it’s not until the final scenes that we the audience begin to understand the meaning of all the morbid overtones. When Emily realizes all the wasted moments of her past, the pain is too much to bear, and we too, in our theatre chairs, begin to realize all the moments we take for granted. But we’re not dead. We have the opportunities to cherish life that Emily does not.
Our Town is, in fact, that rare play that embraces both the sentimentality and the existential terrors of daily life honestly and simply. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that everybody dies, but it also doesn’t dismiss the fact that each day of life is a gift, crammed so full of things that we could never possibly see and appreciate for the wonders that they are.
Set Design is by Director Stanley Brown and George Kondreck, Lighting is by Michael Thorpe, Sound Design managed by Susan Stangl and Costumes are by Kathy Dershimer. My congratulations to the cast and crew for an amazing performance. The acting is superb! Highly Recommended!!
“Our Town” runs January 11th through February 16th with performances at 8pm. Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday Matinees at 2pm. Starting: $22. For Tickets, Call 310-645-5156 or order online at: http://www.kentwoodplayers.org/