Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Millbrook: "Our Town"

Now a staple of American theatre, Thornton Wilder's revolutionary Pulitzer prize winning Our Town's (1938) deceptive simplicity has led many companies to believe it is an easy play to produce; yet, it challenges actors and directors to embrace its serious and profound themes told through the simplest of means: almost no plot, details about the ordinary citizens of a small New England town, bare furnishings on a bare stage, and the engaging presence of a character called only the Stage Manager who serves as both a narrator & chorus [and who takes an occasional small role in the story], who manipulates time and offers provocative insights on life and death, family and social values, dreams and personal goals, and the nature of the temporal and the eternal.

The Millbrook Community Players, with director Stephanie McGuire in charge, have mounted a clear and sensitive production with a large cast of local actors inhabiting Grover's Corners, New Hampshire from 1901 through 1913.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the romance between neighbors George Gibbs [Daniel Harms] and Emily Webb [Annabelle Dubose] over the twelve years of the play, from teenage crushes through marriage and Emily's death from childbirth of their second child. And the assorted family and townspeople add to the truthfulness of their story.

Grover's Corners is an "average" American town, where doors are seldom locked, where neighbors look out for one another, where secrets are few, and where -- though there may be significant changes in the world beyond its borders, and several citizens die -- the town remains essentially the same.

Life's recognizable features -- sibling rivalries, generation gap arguments & misunderstandings, an assortment of town eccentrics and gossips, and the inevitability of death -- are the things that bind the audience to what is reflected of themselves from the stage. And the Stage Manager [Matt Jordan] pointedly and dispassionately provides commentary on it all.

Mr. Harms and Ms. Dubose give sensitive performances as the two young lovers. Their individual innocence and heartfelt attraction and devotion to one another is admirable. As parents, Michael Snead and Angela Pietrzak as Doc and Mrs. Gibbs give credible portrayals of solid citizens whose values are impressed upon their son George; and Roy Goldfinger and Karla McGhee as Mr. and Mrs. Webb turn in strong characterizations as well, with Mr. Goldfinger creating the most fully realized role in this production -- vocally and physically, he is the gold standard here, and a model for others to emulate.

But it is the Stage Manager who guides the entire production. Mr. Jordan's comfortably casual demeanor is palpable from the start. It is essential that audiences connect with this role, and Mr. Jordan makes it easy for them. Directly addressing us throughout, taking detours to provide background and historical details, commenting on the action and the characters, interpreting enough for us to understand the extraordinary within the ordinary, and making it clear that we are in a theatre where we are meant to think about our own beliefs, the context of Grover's Corners and its inhabitants becomes everyplace and everyman.

The final scene in the graveyard at Emily's funeral, where the dead speak and comment on eternity, claiming that "people don't appreciate life while they're living it", causes the Stage Manager to question the mystery of the universe -- we can never know for certain, he says -- but meanwhile, life continues.