Our Town at IRT
Review by: Hope Baugh
The Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is fresh, funny, and completely satisfying.
You may think, “Oh, I have seen ‘Our Town’ before.” Not like this, you haven’t. For one thing, this is “Our Town” done really, really well. Every detail, from the men’s rounded collars to the clinking of the imaginary coffee spoons to the ages of the actors, is right.
For another, director Peter Amster has the IRT actors portray themselves as 1930s actors at first, rather than the scripted characters. We see them bustle into the theatre, full of gladness about working on Thornton Wilder’s new play. As they gather around a long table for the first read-through, we can’t quite hear what they are saying to each other, but we get a sense of their relationships. We can tell that they have worked together before. We also get a sense of their excitement and apprehension about working on a play in a radical new way: without scenery, with mimed props, and with characters addressing the audience directly. (When “Our Town” was first produced in 1938, none of this had been done before.) As the actors leave the table and begin to occupy the spaces on the stage under the direction of the Stage Manager (played by Robert Elliott), we get to observe the creative process of putting together a daring piece of art. It is a delicious experience.
The transition from prepping the play to performing it is subtle and seamless. The 1930s actors gradually become the characters in the script and then hand the play over to us, the audience. Suddenly, we know the town as well as the actor-townspeople do. Grover's Corners is our town, too, for better or worse.
When I saw the production Wednesday night, I was struck by several lines that seemed… not dated, exactly, but thought-provoking in a way that the playwright probably did not envision. For example, the Stage Manager says that he doesn’t need to tell the women in the audience that Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb have cooked three meals a day and raised two children each for years, all without a vacation. I appreciate that Thornton Wilder acknowledged this unpaid work in the 1930s. I bet he would sympathize with the many women that still do all that today and work a second fulltime job outside the home.
The Stage Manager also says that “most everyone in the world gets married.” Mrs. Gibbs (played by Priscilla Lindsay) says that humans are meant to live two by two and “’tain’t natural to be lonely.” I wonder what Thornton Wilder would have thought about the current debate over legalization of same-sex marriages?
Other lines, however, are thought-provoking in the same way as when I first heard them decades ago, and are as chewy as ever. The mix of cynicism and hope in this play is brilliant.
That is why it is such a treat to be able to see a top-quality production of it. You may think, “Three acts? Two intermissions? ‘Sounds long!” but the time at the theatre flies by, just like life.
Part of what makes the show go by so quickly is its humor. The director’s artistic choices emphasize the hilarity that is inherent in the script. Everyone who has talked to me about seeing this play has mentioned the chickens. I agree: they are a hoot. However, that scene is just one of many that made me laugh out loud.
The scene between Mr. Webb (played by Charles Goad) advising his future son-in-law, George Gibbs (played by Tom Conner) is priceless. The scene between George Gibbs and Emily Webb (played by Gwendolyn Whiteside) falling in love at the soda shop? Also priceless. The scene between Doctor and Mrs. Gibbs (played by Mark Goetzinger and Priscilla Lindsay, respectively) as they recall their wedding day? That scene, too, is priceless.
Eddie Curry as the enthusiastic and flirtatious Professor Willard is a comedy act all in himself. Other characters "just" make me smile, such as the milkman, Howie Newsome (played by Michael Shelton) and his imaginary but very believable horse, or the compassionate Constable Warren (played by Jeff Keel.)
The alcoholic Simon Stimson (played by Ryan Artzberger) helps to carry the dark side, of the town and of the play. Robert Elliott, as the Stage Manager, guides us through all of it with layer upon layer of wisdom and strength.
Many of the production elements help to entrance the audience, too. David Birn’s set looks like a bare stage in a 1930s theatre. Old-fashioned heating pipes cover the back wall. Thick ropes that hang down from the ceiling have their ends looped and tied off to the sides. Before the show begins, a tiny “ghost light” on a tall stand in the middle of the stage illuminates the area just enough so that any actors or stagehands that arrive early won’t trip in the dark.
Ann Sheffield’s costumes are appropriately subdued in color and yet so perfectly finished that I wondered if she had found a time machine somewhere. The women carry beautiful little beaded purses at their waists. The men carry what look to be working pocket watches. From the children’s straw hats to Emily’s wedding dress, the clothes look both real and current (i.e. – authentic, but not like something out of a museum or a costume shop.)
The actors make a lot of the sounds themselves at first – the “thwack!” of the imaginary newspapers as the delivery boy throws them on the porches, the clinking of the imaginary milk bottles as Howie delivers them – but gradually the crew takes over and the production of most of the sounds moves out of sight. In any case, Todd Mack Reischman’s sound design is very witty. I especially loved the surprise thunder.
Shannon McKinney’s lighting design is elegant, especially in the third act. The graveyard is dappled at first with shade and cloud cover. Emily arrives in a beam of mysterious white light that shoots from stage left rather than from overhead. The stars – oh, the stars! – at the end are breathtaking.
At the performance I attended, Richard J. Roberts, the resident dramaturg, led a discussion afterwards that was enjoyable and illuminating. He and Millicent Wright wrote the “Teacher’s Study Packet” that I received as part of my press kit. I am still absorbing its contents, but I can already tell that it would be very useful to anyone who had to do a follow-up discussion of this play in a classroom. Both the study guide and the information-packed program that everyone receives automatically are treasures.
You might think, “I should go see this play in order to improve my cultural literacy,” but I recommend that you forget about “should.” Go see IRT’s “Our Town” simply for the pleasure of it.
To paraphrase Mrs. Soames (played by Jolene Mentink Moffatt), “This is a lovely, lovely production!”
“Our Town” runs through October 6, 2007 on IRT’s Mainstage. According to the person who gave the curtain talk last night, if you mention “Grover’s Corners” when you call to reserve your tickets, you will receive $5 off the cost of one adult ticket.
Last edited by ML; 09-28-2007 at 07:53 AM.