“EMILY: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live – every, every minute? STAGE MANAGER: No – saints and poets maybe – they do some.”
- Thornton Wilder Our Town
It is hard to believe that, until November 18, 2004, this curmudgeonly critic had never seen or read Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town which won him his second of three Pulitzer prizes (the first was for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927 and the third was for his play The Skin of Our Teeth). In the theatre world “Our Town” is frequently referred to as “that old chestnut” and much fun is made of it. Every aspiring actor and actress has a high school performance in Our Town on their resume. Well, now the kids on the Drury Drama Team have that distinction too, and it is one they can wear as a badge of honor.
Our Town is a play about life and death and love and marriage. It is set in the small and placid fictional community of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, as the century turned from the 19th to the 20th. But no one in the audience at Drury was fooled. In was really set in North Adams or Williamstown or Adams. Towns where we can still hear bells ring the hours and the sound of passing trains wafting in our windows. Where twins are born in the Polish (or Italian or French-Canadian) community and everyone knows that the church organist (or the librarian or the drug store clerk) drinks a little.
What is interesting about this production is how very well the young cast plays the heavy complicated scenes, and how comparatively weak they are when playing closer to their own age. We elderly folks speak often of how young people see themselves as immortal and have no concern for the future, but we forget how very mortal and tenuous adolescence is. Teens are deciding daily who they are, what they do well, and where they fit in. They are very closely in touch with the larger cosmic questions of life – questions that Wilder (1897-1975) raises in heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose.
One reason “Our Town” is frequently performed in high schools and colleges is that the central couple – George Gibbs (Charles Manuel) and Emily Webb (Haylee Jones) – never age beyond their mid-twenties. But the play isn’t called George and Emily, it is called Our Town and this is a play that takes a village to pull off well.
Director Dr. Len Radin has assembled a talented multi-generational cast. While many major roles are assayed by Drury students, adult performers make the most of small, peripheral parts with great success. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Jackie DeGiorgis as the church organist slash town drunk (who knew she could burp on cue?) and Howard Cruse as Constable Warren. Yes, it was a bit jarring to see the adult Michael Lively as Doctor Gibbs playing husband to Heidi Shartrand, a Drury freshman, but Shartrand played her role with a centered composure and grace that made it work. Radin himself takes a turn as Professor Willard, who early on explains in great detail the geological properties of the land on which Grover’s Corners sits – as if the very soil were a character in the ongoing drama, comedy, history, and monotony of town life.
Lara Pagan and Tom Morrill played Emily’s parents, Mr. Webb, editor of the Grover’s Corners newspaper which we are told publishes twice a week, and his wife. Pagan, who was such a very composed Dorothy in last year’s production of The Wizard of Oz seemed a little more at sea in an adult role, and Morrill is a sophomore new to the Drama Team who shows signs of future promise.
Lauren Skeffington was delightfully obnoxious as the town gossip Mrs. Soames. A stunning redhead, Skeffington has true stage presence. She is only a sophomore and I look forward to seeing her in larger roles as her Drury career progresses.
Radin has wisely balanced this creation on the shoulders of his very strongest players – Jones, Manuel, and Mollie Simon as the Narrator. They are very good, frighteningly good for high school students. Jones and Simon literally hold the audience spell bound at certain moments, which not many teenaged performers can manage to do.
Manuel is a cheerful, laid back actor. He was very believable as the earnest, hard-working George. His interaction with Sam Therrien as his squeaky little sister Rebecca was charming, and he and Jones handled their romantic scenes with great aplomb.
Simon took a while to warm up to her role in the first act, but once she hit her stride she was very good. Often the narrator is played by a male, but I had no qualms seeing a woman in the role, even in the wedding scene where she performed the ceremony since we are told repeatedly that this is a congregational church and the Congregationalists started ordaining women in the mid-19th century. My one complaint about Simon was that she sometimes spoke very quickly and softly. She was miked, and there were times when she had the audience absolutely mesmerized as she spoke quietly about the great and mundane goings on in Grover’s Corners. But other times I wanted to say, “What was that? Speak up!”
I have left Jones for last because she was the very best of all. In her program bio she writes about seeing her aunt play the role of Emily when she was six “…just watching her hold the audience in the palm of her hand and getting such a reaction from them made me realize that [acting] was something I truly wanted to do.” Jones has dedicated her performance to her aunt, and I hope she is very proud of the fine young actress she has inspired. By the last act Jones certainly had her audience in the palm of her hand. There was audible sniffling throughout the theatre and Jones herself was crying, not just on cue but in character. A really remarkable performance. Jones will graduate this coming spring and I hope she continues her work in the theatre.
There is no constructed set for “Our Town” – just a few tables and chairs and those two ladders for George and Emily in act one. Jon King and Mike Hisler are credited with the lighting, which was adequate but the actors sometimes started their lines before reaching their pool of light, a easy mistake to make on such a very broad stage. Pam Langlois of Hemming Way has once again created the costumes, and while they fit and flatter the actors they represent a hodge-podge of styles and periods. For instance Therrien wears a strange little mob cap that is at least a century out of date for the period of the play, and DeGiorgis looks lovely in a World War II era frock.
Now it is time for my usual picky complaints.
1) Go to Wal-Mart and buy some black tights. No respectable female of that place and period would have gone out barelegged.
2) Take those &*%$#@ body mikes and throw them in the Hoosic River!
With that off my chest I can get back to encouraging you to go and see this strong production of a true classic of 20th century American theatre. Even if you have seen it a million times before, this production merits your time.
Our Town runs November 18, 19 & 20 at 7 p.m. at Drury Senior High School (413-662-3240), 1130 South Church Street (Rt. 8A) in North Adams. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission. This is a very sad play - I wouldn't bring children under 10 or 12. Tickets are $9 for adults and $6 for students.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004