Our Town | Insight Theatre

OUR-TOWN 75It sounds depressing, but it’s not.

OUR-TOWN 500

Thornton Wilder, much honored playwright and novelist, never admitted his homosexuality during his life, and that’s understandable, considering his lifespan was 1897-1975. But might that fact have informed one of his recurring themes in the Pulitzer Prize winning classic Our Town? The point is made that people are intended to go through life “two-by-two.” Mrs. Gibbs (Peggy Billo) says it first and the Stage Manager (narrator and one-person Greek chorus of sorts) echoes it. If Wilder believed what he wrote, then he might have been writing through his own loneliness.

Here, however, the story is all about traditional turn of the (20th) century, conventional families. Joneal Joplin plays the Stage Manager with warmth and folksy reassurance, and as befits his standing as the “dean of actors” in St. Louis, is billed above the title. Despite the passage of years (first produced 1938, set 1901-1913) and a growing sense of mistrust and cynicism in both our public and private lives, Our Town endures, and with director Tom Martin’s and Joplin’s sure hands on the rudder, we are guided through small town life writ large as just “life itself.”

While Wilder’s themes may be old-fashioned, however, his technique was something new and fresh, then. The Stage Manager engages directly with the audience throughout the play, but he’s not breaking the fourth wall, as the technique is called, because there is no fourth wall. There are no walls, no boundaries between us and him and the townsfolk who don’t engage with us but follow his instructions. I don’t know whether Martin or scenic designer Mark Wilson thought up creating a backdrop of a chalkboard and having the actors draw the town, thereby creating a “set,” but bravo to whomever did. It works beautifully, almost magically, drawing us in through our imagination along with their chalk. Perhaps the architects of this show saw it in another production, but I almost hope they didn’t. Wilson’s lights, Victoria Meyer’s sound and Cherol Bown Thibaut’s period-perfect costumes enhance the atmosphere even more.

The other actors are well-cast. Led by Taylor Pietz as Emily Webb and as the proverbial boy next door, George Gibbs, whom she marries right after they graduate high school, we follow them through their courtship and marriage. He’s the son of the town doctor (John Contini), but his ambitions are more prosaic. He plans to go to work on his uncle’s farm when he finishes college, but his desire to be with Emily makes him decide to skip higher education and go directly to work. Their wedding brings the whole town together, and it is, as weddings are, a mixture of jitters and joy. Donna Weinsting as the busybody Mrs. Soames has a nice bit to close Act II as she discourses on how much she just loves weddings and how she always cries. What makes it humorous is that the ceremony is going on while she speaks her thoughts aloud.

While Act I introduced us to the town and Act II culminates in the marriage, Act III is more sober as the focus shifts to death. When we return from the second intermission (and there’s no watching to see if the lights will come up because the Stage Manager tells us to take a break), the drawings of the town, except for one of a boy who was a promising baseball player but died in France during WWI, are erased. In their place, a pair of gates is sketched on the board and we find ourselves in the cemetery with those who have died since we last saw them some years before. They’re seated in two rows of chairs and their expressions are impassive. Mrs. Soames is there, as is Simon Stinson (Michael Brightman), the deeply depressed alcoholic choir director who hanged himself. They are joined by Mrs. Gibbs, George’s mother and the doctor’s wife, who died of pneumonia while visiting relatives; Emily’s little brother Wally (Charlie B. Southern) whose appendix burst on a Boy Scout trip, old Mr. McCarty (Jim Ryan) and an unidentified young woman. It is the day of Emily Gibbs’ funeral. The crowd enters humming her favorite hymn, which pleases her, and highlights another device employed throughout the production, that is using members of the cast as a choir. Charlie Mueller is credited as musical director. He has created a lovely background of sweet vocal harmonies, and the addition fits the fact that the women do attend choir practice and stand around and gossip after, as we see in Act I.

Emily has died in childbirth with her second baby and, of course, everyone, especially her husband, is heartbroken. She hasn’t yet cut her ties with the world of the living as the others have done. They don’t really like to be visited, they tell us as they talk among themselves, a nod to Emily Dickinson’s poems, I believe. Emily Gibbs starts talking with her mother-in-law. She has learned she can go back for a day, but Mrs. Gibbs advises against it. The Stage Manager warns her not to do it, as well, yet she does and chooses her twelfth birthday to relive. She quickly learns she can’t stand it for more than a few minutes because she realizes that the living don’t really pay attention to each other, don’t appreciate their time and the families and friends who surround them because they are caught up in the busy-ness of life. And so she willingly returns to the land of the dead to join them in their shedding of their old life and the anticipation of something greater to come.

Our Town is long, but it doesn’t seem so, at least not until the third act, which gets a little talky due to the events both above and below ground. The dead have no affect, but they still have lines. Maybe Wilder invented the modern zombie? One touch I really appreciated and I wish more theatres would observe the convention, as Insight does here, is two intermissions. Rather than making the play seem even longer, to me, it breaks it up nicely into three digestible pieces. You don’t ever feel held prisoner by the goings on in front of you as the artificial insertion of one break in a show that needs two can do.

Interestingly, Insight has had some beautiful sets in its six seasons, but this bare bones one is my favorite to date. We are expected to rise to the occasion of using our imaginations to encompass what we see and fill in the blanks through the storyteller’s descriptions and the sound effects made right in front of us to indicate rain, rattling bottles, etc. The players carefully mime everyday actions, cooking, washing, even drinking coffee and stringing beans. For example, Amy Loui as Mrs. Webb, Emily’s mother discreetly snaps her fingers with each bean. It’s a cool effect. She and Alan Knoll as Mr. Webb, the local newspaper editor, are loving parents to two children they are destined to outlive, which creates a sense of dramatic irony every time the family is together and explains why Emily is so distraught when she rejoins them for what she remembers as a happy day.

And yet, Our Town, perhaps performed by high schools more than any other play with the possible exception of The Crucible (large cast, you know) still resonates. It sounds depressing, but it’s not. In fact, it’s enormously hopeful about life and death, love and marriage, parents and children, even though we don’t live mindfully enough. And that is the lesson to take away here, and it is profound and eternal: Pay attention. Don’t sleepwalk through your time on this earth, be good to one another and accept what comes in all its glory and pain. To live authentically, one must feel it all. | Andrea Braun

Additional Cast: Braden Phillips, Robert Thibaut, Lily Orchard, Paul Balfe, Caroline Kwan, Louisa Wimmer Brown, Eric Dean White, Joe Kercher, Austin Pierce and Tom Wethington.

Our Town runs through Sept. 29 at Insight Theatre. You may contact insighttheatrecompany.com.

Photo credit: John Lamb

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