Our Town is the story of the people of Grover's Corners, NH - in particular the neighboring Gibbs and Webb families whose children (George and Emily respectively) experience love, marriage, parenthood and death - all in about two hours (or 14 years, depending on your perspective). Narrated by an omniscient fellow referred to only as The Stage Manager, a whole cast of characters from the town fill in the world around George and Emily, painting images of an uneventful, but thoroughly American small town existence at the turn of the 20th century.
Director James Thomas gives us a presentational world in which the characters rarely manage to find the sincerity that the play begs for. There is a cold detachment to the performance that, though it is clearly intentional, makes the action difficult to invest in. And though the third act (yes - it's a three-act play, but it's still a brisk two hours, so don't be scared) is written as a huge departure from the world established in the first two acts, this production does little to communicate the change. But perhaps the most frustrating elements are the swing set and the Stage Manager's iPad. There is an old adage (attributed to Anton Chekhov) that if a gun appears on stage in the first act, it must be fired by the final act. Basically this means that everything should be on stage for a reason. But we have no such satisfaction here. In a play intentionally lacking in scenery (The Stage Manager tells us that the play doesn't need any), the prominent swing set upstage center is all the more prominent for its being entirely unnoticed and unused by the actors. And though I quite like the choice to make the Stage Manager a contemporary presence, he never actually uses the iPad slung conspicuously at his side.
The performances are, as I mentioned before, usually a little detached and difficult to relate to, but I will say that they do feel like they are all inhabiting the same world together, which is no small feat. 22 people all agreeing on one set of given circumstances is always an accomplishment. Zyle Cook and Kristin Dawn-Dumas as George Gibbs and Emily Webb have some genuinely charming moments - the soda shop sequence is definitely one of the strongest of the show, in my opinion - but they have a hard time finding the depth of loss that each character eventually goes through. Katelyn Foster (Mrs. Webb), Luke Rose (Mr. Webb), Gaia Klotz (Mrs. Gibbs), and Carl Bentley (Dr. Gibbs) all do a fine job playing much older characters - and Rose's moment with his daughter before her wedding is very sweet. And, as our emcee for the evening, Dante Jones plays the Stage Manager with energy and focus. The auxiliary characters slide in and out of the action of the play without making much of an impression - though Breon Canady as Mrs. Soames and Anthony Scamihorn as Simon Stimson both have some memorable moments.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this production comes in the form of its design elements. The set (designed by Lisa Charlotte Berg) - a mostly bare stage draped with white curtains - dwarfs the actors. And the lovely though irrelevant swing set draws unearned attention time and again. The little sculpture of clocks and knick-knacks that surrounds the Stage Manager's perch is interesting, but completely unrelated to anything else on the stage. The lighting by Leah McCall is limited and often fails to provide even basic illumination, let alone communicate mood or provide visual interest. I'm not sure whether the few projections were the purview of scenic or lighting, but they were clumsily executed, and the relentless merry-go-round footage playing during the first intermission threatens a bout of seasickness or vertigo if a hapless audience member allows his/her gaze to linger too long. Michael Hallberg's sound design, though well-intentioned, is often fairly low-quality, and the high-pitched clinking of the milk bottles is particularly hard on the ears. That said, Mary Gietzen's costumes stand out among the technical elements; they are simple and effective, they look good on the actors, and they serve the play and its characters very well.
I love watching undergraduates perform - I root for them with every step, and I forgive their productions a lot of foibles that I would not forgive a professional theatre. And while Our Town at the Bonstelle Theatre was not, in my opinion, a particularly successful endeavor, I applaud the students for their hard work on what may well be the most difficult piece many of them have tackled at this point in their young careers.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder (Director: James Thomas) closed at Wayne State University's Bonstelle Theatre on October 20th. For more information about upcoming shows, visit http://theatre.wayne.edu/ourshows.php