Updated: May 20
A Sentimental Portrait of Old-Time Americana
Just before the beginning of a wonderfully intimate performance of “Our Town” at South Coast Repertory this past Sunday afternoon, I overheard a couple of older patrons behind me remark that they had never before seen it. That was a bit surprising, because this great, enduring play by Thornton Wilder has been staged countless times since its 1938 premiere in Princeton.
The artful simplicity of Wilder’s prose and structure in creating a microcosm of a New Hampshire village of the early 1900s remains remarkable and beguiling. As the playwright positions the town of Grover’s Corners against the vast context of endless time and a boundless universe, his drama celebrates both the marvel of everyday existence and the “something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
That last observation is made by the character known as the Stage Manager, an omniscient figure who is in charge of the action and frequently comments upon it. He is confidently played here by the lean, angular Hal Landon Jr., who is a founding member of SCR and has notably played Scrooge for their seasonal “A Christmas Carol” for the better part of 40 years before finally hanging up his nightcap.
Mr. Landon’s claim to fame is also the role of Captain Logan in the 90’s cult classic “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” starring the likes of Keanu Reeves and George Carlin. Mr. Landon has a dry Yankee twang in the role, and a mostly cool sense of composure that occasionally turns fierce during the play’s bleaker passages. Most of that comes second-nature for the great Hal Landon Jr. And the production has been sensitively directed with infinite attention to detail by the wondrous Beth Lopes, whose last SCR direction was before the pandemic with the much-loved, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
Using footlights and extensive side-lighting, Karyn D. Lawrence’s design is sculptural and often exquisite. The brightening dawn as the first act begins, and the deep blue and white moonlight that concludes it, are nearly distracting in their beauty. The director and designer clearly intend to evoke the charms of nature that people sometimes fail to appreciate in their own surroundings. Aptly dressed in vintage clothes by Kathryn Wilson, the 16-member company (with a number playing multiple roles) gives a vivid sense of life to the characters.
Young next-door neighbors, Emily Webb and George Gibbs, whose courtship and wedding form the heart of the drama, are ardently portrayed by Grace Morrison and Evan Lugo. Their sweet spontaneity is on full display in the scene similar to a Norman Rockwell idyll, where Emily and George sip strawberry ice cream sodas as they realize their love for each other produces a wealth of feelings they’ve never experienced. Radiant within the darkness of the third act, Ms. Morrison’s tearful interpretation of Emily’s goodbye to the world is very moving.
Warmly depicting George’s mother, Kwana Martinez is a peppery Mrs. Gibbs opposite his father, a hale Dr. Gibbs played by Corey Jones. Mikayla Conley (also playing Lady in the Box and the Woman among the Dead) is nice-as-pie as George’s smart little sister, Rebecca. The bond between Emily and her parents seems especially close. Elyse Mirto’s Mrs. Webb with her matter-of-fact attitude is a complete antithesis with Michael Manuel’s quietly wry Mr. Webb. And Brad Culver offers a skillful and sharply cut cameo as the town’s tippling choirmaster, Simon Stimson.
“Our Town” is generally known as a work that is meant to be presented in a theater with a bare stage. In fact, the script introduces the world of “Our Town” with very simple stage direction: No curtain. No scenery. The audience arriving sees an empty stage in half-light. Yet set designer Efren Delgadillo Jr. employs a good deal of smart stagecraft in realizing this incarnation of Grover’s Corners. The audience still uses its imagination to complete the visuals, as the author intended, but the designers lend ample assistance.
A couple of wooden wedding arches on either side of the stage represents the doorways to two families living by each other. Several of the cast helps with sound effects and Foley when needed—chicken cluckers, washboards, footsteps. The tables and chairs used by the actors represent a drugstore, a church and a cemetery. Here comes Howie Newsome (Paul Culos) and his horse, Bessie, delivering the morning milk, bottles rattling over in the wings.
And it’s almost as if you could reach out and start trimming peas with Myrtle Webb, or ruffle the hair of that baseball-mad paperboy, Joe Crowell (Saul Gutierrez). Even if you’re in the back row you can probably read the headlines in Doc Gibbs’s morning paper. But when the play moves to the heights of the town cemetery in the third act, a little chill may crawl up your spine.
“Our Town” is not a play about the evaporated glory of simpler yesteryears. On the contrary, it whispers to us the urgent necessity of living in the here and now which is all anybody in Grover’s Corners ever had, all anybody anywhere really has.
The production keeps us continually in the present moment, not obscured by the dark anonymity of spectatorship but visible to one another and to the actors. It expresses with a fine clarity the idea that theater is not, ideally, an escape from life but a means of entering into it more fully. So real in fact, when a woman in the audience had a coughing fit, I almost wanted to call in exasperation for Doc Gibbs to toss her a lozenge.
That is the sole extraordinary touch in a production that is in most ways ordinary, and I think purposely so. Wilder sought to make sacraments of simple things. In “Our Town” he cautioned us to recognize that life is both precious and ordinary, and that these two fundamental truths are intimately connected. Grovers Corners has been compared to both the lonely wastelands of Samuel Beckett and the picket-fence-bordered backyards and twinkling charm of the old black and white Andy Hardy movies. The ideal production of ''Our Town'' falls somewhere between the cosmic chill of the one and the homey warmth of the other.
In the central roles of George and Emily, who move from shy young love into marriage, Evan Lugo and Grace Morrison find their chemistry early on. As a couple, they tend toward expressiveness, and the opening moments of their courtship scene in the second act are lovely as they attempt to feel each other out.
Mr. Jones and especially Mr. Manuel wear their respective roles as the town doctor and the newspaper editor as if they were old sweaters. And Ms. Martinez is first rate as George's mother. Whether she's feeding an imaginary flock of chickens or savoring the smell of heliotrope, she inhabits every scene with a sharpness, simplicity and immediacy that, like the play itself, fully values the small and fleeting moments in life.
As for the all-knowing, avuncular Stage Manager of ''Our Town,'' Hal Landon Jr. remains genuinely and doggedly humble for the succeeding two-hours-plus of Wilder's immortal tale of small-town mortality at the turn of the 20th century. Mr. Landon doesn’t seem to have an avuncular bone in his body. Setting the scene as the play opens, he checks the hour on his cellphone, checks his notes on a yellow pad and briskly marches us through the geography of the town and introduces its principal players in an almost brusque, offhand manner. He has the unswayed, businesslike tone of an office manager showing the new employees where the water cooler and the bathrooms are.
He waits until the second act to turn on the oratorical charisma that is the Stage Manager's right. Even then, he dispenses it sparingly. ''You make a few decisions and then, wham, you're 70,'' he says at one point, with a vigor and incredulity that startles. Mr. Landon himself is, right now, only a few days shy of 82. But his performance here suggests that getting older has its advantages—the best being, you no longer have to strain to make an indelible impression.
“We’re all People, before we’re anything else. People, even before we’re artists. The role of being a Person is sufficient to have lived and died for.” – Thornton Wilder
WITH: MIKAYLA CONLEY, PAUL CULOS, BRAD CULVER, NICOLE ERB, MICHAEL WILLIAM GOMEZ, SAUL GUTIERREZ, COREY JONES, HAL LANDON JR., JO LOPEZ, EVAN LUGO, MICHAEL MANUEL, KWANA MARTINEZ, ELYSE MIRTO, GRACE MORRISON, LESTER PURRY, MOSES VILLARAMA.
PRODUCTION: Director BETH LOPES; Music Director DEBORAH WICKS LA PUMA; Production Stage Manager KATHRYN DAVIES; Artistic Director DAVID IVERS; Managing Director PAULA TOMEI; Founding Artistic Directors DAVID EMMES & MARTIN BENSON; Scenic Director EFREN DELGADILLO JR.; Costume Design KATHRYN WILSON; Lighting Design KARYN D. LAWRENCE; Soundscape Composer JOHN NOBORI; Dialect Coach CAITLIN MUELDER; Casting JOANNE DENAUT CSA.
OUR TOWN, BY THORNTON WILDER; Now Playing on THE SEGERSTROM STAGE, May 14th through June 4th at SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, COSTA MESA. Performances are Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30PM; Fridays, Saturdays @ 8:00PM; Saturday Matinees at 2:30PM; Sundays at 2:00PM; Approximately 2 hours, plus 2 intermissions; For Tickets visit: www.scr.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Matt Gush/SCR