Monday, February 25, 2019

ASF: "Our Town"

When Thornton Wilder penned his revolutionary Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town in 1938, he wanted it to be "performed without sentimentality or ponderousness -- simply, dryly, and sincerely". Set "in the theatre where it is being performed" on a mostly bare stage, and using minimal props, his story of the ordinary lives of the residents of Grover's Corners offers profound insights into our lives as well.

The current powerfully simple and profound production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival enlightens audiences in its three acts titled "Daily Life", "Love and Marriage", and "Death and Eternity", all guided by the Stage Manager [Douglas Rees, last seen at ASF in 2005], whose comfortably casual narration helps us understand the extraordinary within the ordinary, inviting us to assess our own lives and beliefs. He is both narrator and chorus 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.

Grover's Corners, from 1901-1913, is an average American town where very little of note happens: doors are seldom locked, neighbors look out for one another, secrets are few, and the large ensemble of actors playing assortment of eccentrics and gossips, occasional sibling rivalries and the inevitability of death are marked for us to see and respond with affection and a touch of nostalgia.

The plot tracks the love between neighbors George Gibbs [Michael Williams] and Emily Webb [Cassia Thompson] from teenage crushes through marriage and Emily's death in the birth of their second child. The innocence they bring to the roles and the heartfelt attraction and devotion to one another is admirable.

Their parents -- Dr. Gibbs [Christopher Gerson] and Mrs. Gibbs [Nehassaiu deGannes]; newspaper editor Mr. Webb [Chauncy Thomas] and Mrs. Webb [Michelle Shupe] -- are solid and respected citizens whose concerns for the world at large reflect the ideals of family, and whose values are impressed upon their children.

Directed by Bruce Longworth, and complimented by the neutral color pallet in both Josh Smith's set and Theresa Ham's costumes [this changes briefly in Act III where vibrant color accentuates Emily's brief return to the land of the living], this version of Our Town comes full circle in the closing scenes in the graveyard at Emily's funeral, where the dead speak and comment on eternity.

When Emily asks the Stage Manager "Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?", he responds: "No -- the saints and poets, maybe -- they do some." And we are left in the audience to consider our own involvement in the simple things in life that matter most.