By Kay Kipling
No matter how many times I’ve seen Our Town—and I’ve seen it a lot—it never fails to touch me, whether it’s performed at the highest level of professionalism or in a high school production. That’s a testament to the truth of Thornton Wilder’s play, 75 years after it was first performed and 100 years since the time of its tale of Grover’s Corners.
And though I saw Our Town fairly recently at Venice Theatre’s Stage II, that doesn’t mean the pull of Wilder’s small-town characters and their lives and deaths has lost any of its appeal. In the Manatee Players’ current production in the intimate Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theater, under the direction of Candace Artim, the seemingly simple drama unfolds in the bare-bones way Wilder envisioned it: with no set other than a few props, with characters from the play mingling with the audience in their seats, and with the Stage Manager (in this case, a woman, Diana Shoemaker) setting the scene for the three short acts.
Shoemaker displays confidence in her role as she leads us through learning about Grover’s Corners from its citizens. But the heart of the story lies with the friendship-romance of young George Gibbs (Hunter Brown) and Emily Webb (Sabrina Bowen), next-door neighbors we watch grow into a married couple. They and their parents (the Webbs played by Bill Atz and Kristi Hibschman; the Gibbses by Mark Shoemaker and Lynne Doyle) go about the mundane details of everyday life—cooking, eating, homework—miming their actions accompanied by appropriate sound effects while letting us see inside the nature of their relationships and their histories.
It still works to see Emily and George on their ladders (representing their upstairs bedroom window views), exchanging tentative confidences, and at the soda fountain in Act II, a scene that never loses its charm as we watch them recognize and accept their love. And it still breaks the heart to see the graveyard in Act III, the dead sitting in their chairs at a remove from earthly cares, and to watch Emily join their number.
There are nice moments by Doyle and Hibschman as the hard-working mothers here, but overall our hearts are won, as they should be, by Brown and Bowen as the young couple. Bowen especially does good work with facial expressions conveying a gamut of emotions as both girl and older woman. It’s a winning performance.
Our Town continues through Nov. 17; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.