Thursday, October 9, 2014

“This Is the Way We Were” – OUR TOWN at Dramaworks

Our Town is probably the most widely performed play in American theatre.  Who hasn’t seen it, even at the high school level (my son played George Gibbs in his high school production)?  As many times as we’ve seen the play our one regret was not being able to attend the Westport Country Playhouse’s production with Paul Newman as the stage manager in June 2002.  Its brief run there ended before we returned to Connecticut from Florida for the summer.

So now we finally had the opportunity to see what a professional theatre company would do with the play.  In celebration of Dramaworks’ 15th season, it has staged a beautiful, memorable rendering, with the largest cast in its history, many veterans of other Dramaworks shows.  As J. Barry Lewis, the play’s Director and Dramaworks’ Resident Director, said at the lunch and learn the afternoon before the first preview performance, this company had grown so much artistically over the years that it wanted to put their own imprimatur on one of the most revered plays in American theatre history. 

Dramaworks cast discuss the play
Most of the twenty one actors in the play have appeared in other Dramaworks productions, so it was a reunion of sorts, a celebration of their theatre community -- and community in general -- with its choice of another Pulitzer Prize winning play (the company has performed at least one in each of its 15 years).

Dramaworks also put its own spin on the set.  Although it is the traditional minimalist set, with no props other than the chairs and tables (actors miming their use of everyday implements such as kitchenware), the backdrop could be anyplace backstage circa 1938 when the play was written (although the play covers the years 1903-1913, set in the mythical Grover’s Corners of New Hampshire). It is evocative of New England. It speaks of earlier times, a simpler way of life, but life, nonetheless, as we all still live it in all its cycles. The minimalist set asks us, the audience, to use our own imagination, enter the play, and to fill in the blanks. 

Our Town Set
So why does this play never tire, in spite of the number of times we’ve seen it?  It is a play about everyman – us – and it is a celebration of what it means to be part of a community.  It’s about the transience of life, something we become increasingly aware of as we age, putting our brief humdrum existence in context (“The cottage, the go cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will. Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”). It is a call to find beauty and meaning in the ordinary. 

The play is like a fine piece of music, where Act I: Daily Life is the exposition, meeting the characters and witnessing their routines, ones they go about sort of unconsciously as they comment about the weather and the ordinary details of their day.  Act II: Love and Marriage is the development section, where the characters and the themes are now more in focus; something of consequence is happening, a wedding, perhaps the most significant event in our lifetimes (“People are meant to go through life two by two,  ’Tain’t natural to be lonesome”).  Act III: Death and Dying is the recapitulation, but, now with an entirely different and solemn look at the characters when they realize their daily life must be lived, and every day, every action, cherished ("Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?-every, every minute?"). The omniscient Stage Manager then sums up, continuing to pass through the fourth wall, directly wishing the audience a good night.

We never tire of hearing the great masters of classical music, and similarly that is why seeing Our Town again (and again) is welcome.  We listen for the variations, the spin on the performance a conductor might put on a piece of music and the virtuosity of the musicians, and in this case what a director will do with the tabula rasa of the stage and bringing out the talent of the actors. 

How fitting that the Stage Manger role should go to Colin McPhillamy whose previous performances in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Exit the King, Copenhagen and The Pitmen Painters were outstanding.  He is the consummate actor (and fellow blogger). He gives a tour de force performance inhabiting the role of the authoritative, omniscient guide for the audience, easily transitioning to briefly becoming a character in the play and then back again as the “stage manager.” It must be a difficult role to play. McPhillamy perfectly describes it in his blog.  “A man both of the town and beyond it, able to move in several directions in time and with the prescient knowledge of things to come and things past. His voice joins with the author's in the play's great invitation: to notice.”

Arguably the other leading characters in the play are Emily Webb and George Gibbs, with their marriage the center of the play’s loose plot line which gives rise to the play’s major themes on what it means to exist.

Emiley Kiser, a Dramaworks newcomer, plays Emily Webb.  She’s direct and likable, to George who marries her, and to us, the audience.  Yet she dies a young woman, only 26 years old giving birth to their second child.  Emiley Kiser is the kind of actress who just radiates her youth, making the transition from teenager to young adult on stage, the perfect choice for the fabled girl next door in the mythical town of Grover’s Corner.

George Gibbs is played by another newcomer, Joe Ferrarelli, an all-American boy, baseball is his sport, who hopes to go to college but settles down with Emily instead.  He takes the path of most of Grover’s Corner’s youngsters, 90% of them staying in the same town as they were born.  Ferrarelli plays his role with the breathless expectation of the future, a life with his childhood (albeit secret) sweetheart, one that he takes for granted will last, well, forever. 

The other major roles are all played by Dramaworks’ veterans and their experience and love of working together shines in their professionalism.  These include Kenneth Kay (Dr. Gibbs), Elizabeth Dimon (Mrs. Gibbs), Patti Gardner (Mrs. Webb), Dan Leonard (Mr. Webb), and Margery Lowe (Mrs. Soames).  Other members of the cast are Michael Collins, John Felix, Cliff Goulet, Dave Hyland, Hal Johnstone, Char Plotsky, Allie Beltran, Sawyer Hyatt, Joshua Stoughton, Justin Strikowski, Patrick A. Wilkinson, Nick Arenstein, and Ashley Horowitz.

In addition to the first-rate acting, it’s the “other things” that distinguish a fine professional production from a very good amateur one, specifically the set, lighting, sound, and costumes.  Of course professional companies usually have the facilities and the budget to excel in these areas, but one also needs the inspiration and the creativity for them to soar.  I already mentioned the scenic design, but a special mention should be made about the lighting, designed by the same person who handled the scenic design, Paul Black. With lighting, he captured the characters bathed in moonlight, drew the audience focus to certain characters while keeping others in dappled shadows, and making the characters in the cemetery seem, well, other-worldly.  The lighting was not obtrusive, but greatly enhanced the production.  Costumes of the period were spot on, thanks to Robin L. McGee’s efforts and when you needed to hear that railroad in the distance, sound designer, Matt Corey was right on cue.  Indeed, it’s these little things that help make a brilliant professional production.

Finally, it takes a special director to bring all of these elements together into a seamless, fulfilling creation.  J. Barry Lewis had never directed Our Town during his long career and it took a confluence of events to bring him to Grover’s Corner at this time, with a theatre company reaching maturity, with actors uniquely qualified for the roles, and professional designers and a stage well equipped to bring out all Thornton Wilder intended.  A deft director’s hand is critical to avoid the sense of sentimentality and to focus on the weighty universal truths behind the cycle of life of the play’s characters.  He is careful to capture the humor Wilder interjects here and there as well as to counterbalance the tragic elements.

So once again Dramaworks kicks off its season with a classic American play, one about a town in the early 20th century, about us.  At one point the stage manager speculates about what the townspeople should put in a time capsule they are planning. He thinks this play itself should be among the artifacts, "So - people a thousand years from now - this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. - This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."  Theatre to think about!