Our Town is one of those plays that has become so familiar and so beloved, it’s hard to believe it struggled to open on Broadway, back in 1938, as the program notes for Venice Theatre’s current Stage II production mention. Watching it today, after the countless productions it’s had in the past 75 years, it seems almost impossible that this virtually perfect Thornton Wilder piece wasn’t always there, waiting to touch us.
In director Murray Chase’s version of the play, you are greeted by a sign as you enter that welcomes you to Grover’s Corners, the small New Hampshire town that lies at the heart of the story. And as you sit down, you notice that certain of your fellow audience members, placed strategically around the stage, are dressed in period costume. They are indeed actors, and sitting among them does work to make you feel more than ever part of the town, and of Wilder’s seemingly simple but oh so poignant tale.
Told in three short acts, Our Town opens with the Stage Manager (Daniel Greene, who has an easy, comfortable way about him here that’s just right for the role) telling us something about Grover’s Corners and what we’re going to see. The first act focuses on a normal day in the town, circa 1901—a day with all of its mundane routines intact and demonstrated. Mothers are cooking breakfast (you don’t see the plates or cups, but your hear the sound of dishes), children are readying for school (carrying invisible books) and other citizens are performing their daily chores—delivering milk, birthing babies, etc.
It’s all quiet and low-key and rather lulling in its gentleness, along with offering some humor, especially as young Emily Webb (Kenzie Balliet) and George Gibbs (Zachary Evanicki) realize and announce their love for each other over the soda fountain in Act II. But as anyone who’s ever seen Our Town knows, in Act III Wilder’s mundane, even boring details turn heartbreaking, as we visit the graveyard where the townspeople make the break from the land of the living. No matter how many times I’ve seen the play, I’ve never been able to make it through Act III without tears forming in my eyes.
Director Chase sets the right tone for the production from the start, and he has a pretty well-selected cast; in addition to Greene and the appealing Balliet and Evanicki, he gets nice performances from Kristi Hibschman, Laurie Colton, Steve Horowitz and Greg Courter as the couple’s parents. There was a fairly small audience the night I attended the show; I hope that anyone who hasn’t ever seen Our Town (and even those who have) will take the time for a visit to Grover’s Corners this time around.
Our Town continues through March 30; for tickets call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com.
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