Our Town Still Theatrically Reflects Our Selves
By Patrick Hurley
The Theater. The invention of this spectacle-fueled construct that revels in artificiality serves as the setting, motif and thematic launching pad for Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-Prize Winning masterpiece Our Town, playing now at the Pasadena Playhouse.
The simplicity of the ordinary daily lives of the residents of Grover’s Corners as told by a narrator becomes the dramatic impetus for a play that hinges entirely on idea instead of plot. It seeks to deconstruct all of the Aristotelian unities, while still strangely adhering to the traditional elements of drama. It is an innovatory exercise in form and language wherein the artful simplicity of the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
The play is introduced and narrated by the Stage Manager (Jane Kaczmarek), who welcomes us to the theater, and to the small town of Grover’s Corners, after a brief tour of the town, we settle in on two homes, which are indicated through four chairs on either side of the stage that serve as dining room tables. We are in the homes of the Gibbs and Webb families.
Mrs. Gibbs (Alexandria Wailes) and Mrs. Webb (Annika Marks) are preparing breakfast, they then send their children off to school, and meet in the garden outside to gossip. As the town bustles around them. After school lets out, George Gibb (Deric Augustine) waits for his neighbor Emily Webb (Sandra Mae Frank) and we watch the sweet blossoming of young love. Act One ends with George and Emily talking to each other in the moonlight through their bedroom windows, which are indicated by having the actors climb ladders on either side of the stage.
Act Two takes place three years later on George and Emily’s wedding day, and deals with the rituals, nerves and emotions that accompany such an occasion. Finally, Act Three takes place at the cemetery at the top of a hill overlooking the town. It is in the third act where the play’s intentions become clear. The perspicuity of Wilder’s dialogue reaches the sublime, and the poignant and still relevant message has the weighty power to move us to reflective philosophical places. It is poetry.
This production, co-produced by Deaf West Theatre, and which utilizes American Sign Language (ASL) is handsomely realized. The large stage, almost entirely bare, provides a grand emptiness that always reminds us we’re in a theater watching a play. At the same time, it’s a very traditional production of this play, wonderfully lit by Jared A. Sayeg’s gorgeous lighting design, and authentically outfitted by Ann Closs Farley’s costumes. However, it seems that there is a version of this play that doesn’t dress the part. And while it does take place, narratively, in the early parts of the twentieth century, it would have been compelling to see it performed in the clothes and attitudes of today. It would bring into even more focus the artifice of theater, and the universality of the piece to a modern audience. As it stands, it’s still effective, and the performances are all first-rate. With Deric Augustine’s George as the standout of the evening. His earnest devotion to Emily and his lust for life attitude is fully and sweetly realized throughout. He also incorporates the signing into his role so fluidly, it feels perfectly natural. This is a slight issue with some of the other actors. There are a few for whom the signing and speaking combination makes it so that some of the beauty and power of the language gets tangled in unnatural speaking patterns. It slows, and sometimes becomes rhythmic, which can also make it monotone. This doesn’t happen when an actor is signing and another actor is speaking for them. In fact, in those instances, the marriage of the two actors is almost always seamless, which is also a huge credit to Sheryl Kaller’s terrific direction. One of the challenges of this piece is that so much of it lives in exposition. It is a slow-burn wherein the last act serves as a huge payoff if it’s fully realized. This production nearly gets there. It’s spectacular to look at. The bareness of the stage alone serves as theatrical spectacle. However, it’s a bit too slow in spots, and you end up really feeling the nearly three hour running time.
In the end, it’s easy to see why this, as a piece of writing, is as revered as it is. It was written in the 1930s, before the end of WWII would bring about the Post-Modern movement into literature. Where rejection of standards and traditions would become commonplace. This play is a genre-blending work of meta-theatrical art that must have thrilled and confused audiences that first saw it. In the current theatrical world, it’s probably still a little less conventional than the average theatregoer is used to, and at nearly 80 years old, that’s incredibly impressive. What it does is simple, it breaks the theatrical world and uses the artificiality of it to represent the artifice of our lives. What we think the major dramatic question is, probably isn’t. What we think is significant might just be set decoration, and the actual significance is in the smallest of details. The residents of this small New Hampshire town are just living their lives, just the mundane day-to-day, and all the while, a momentum to an introspective and universal conclusion is building. It also strips the medium of theater bare, and not only shows the seams, but unapologetically points them out. As it does with life. This is a work of art that wants to connect us through our universal questions of existence, as the play says, “We all know something is eternal. And it ain’t houses, and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth…and it ain’t even the stars.” This text is a testament to how beautifully nuanced and self-aware playwriting can be. And how our longing to understand that eternal something, should be the catalyst for creating more beautiful works of art.
Deaf West Theatre Present:
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Through October 22
39 S. El Molino Avenue
626 356 7529