Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our Town by Thornton Wilder

By Joe Straw

Walking into The Broad Theatre, one notices all the seats are gone.  Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay has placed them underneath a huge thrust stage.

At first glance, the setting looks like a gymnasium, a small basketball court of a small town and what a perfect way to showcase this production in a venue that is almost familiar to everyone.  This setting exemplifies the place of our first recital; our first basketball game, the sock hop, our Christmas pageant, and the place our parents got teary eyed watching us perform. And, for some odd reason, I felt right at home.  And then…

 “The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire-just across the Massachusetts line:  latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes…The day is May 7, 1901.  This time is just before dawn. The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount’in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, - doesn’t it?” – Thornton Wilder

Helen Hunt takes the stage with extraordinary confidence one cannot imagine.  Her words as the Stage Manager leave you breathless, the imagery is specific, and her movements are concise without a misstep.  She takes little time in taking us back to images of a long forgotten past.  

And those images are a bleb that encapsulates a small part of the world we know as Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire.

One feels a sense of pride watching this play, and with my head held erect, my chin lowered, my eyes looking forward, I take a deep breath, and I absorb all that this play is willing to give. It is a magnificent play where one yearns for the words. And slowly the words of that forgotten place become blurred images that become crystal clear as the play progresses.  

Our Town, a play by Thornton Wilder, starring Helen Hunt and directed by David Cromer at The Broad Stage, is a miraculous achievement.  So much so that it is, literally, difficult to leave.  You sit after taking in every moment, and at the end of it wondering if it possible to leave this warm place for the cool chill of the Santa Monica air.

Cromer, the director, hits all the right notes, taking the precise path, never wasting a minute of our time, and keeping a tight focus on what needs to be said.  The ending is quite marvelous and the olfactory stimulations send you home in a state of enlightenment and with a light heart. This production is beautiful beyond comprehension.

As the morning begins, Mrs. Gibbs (Lori Myers) and Mrs. Webb (Kati Brazda) work to keep their households running.  Never in competition, they work their families with the approach of a loud monarchy.

A tired Doc Gibbs (Jeff Still) comes home after working through the wee small hours in “Polish Town,” delivering a set of twins. But he is never too busy to speak with the paperboy, Joe Crowell Jr. (Coby Getzug), and the milkman, Howie Newsome (Maximilian Asinski). 

“I do wish I could get you to go away someplace and take a rest. I think it would do you good.” – Mrs. Gibbs

Not satisfied with her present situation, Mrs. Gibbs wants her life to be better but most of all she wants those darn kids, George Gibbs (James McMenamin) and Rebecca Gibbs (Ronete Levenson), to get up and eat the breakfast that she has lovingly prepared!  

But fifteen-year-old George Gibbs has got only one thing on his mind, baseball. Okay, so, maybe two things.

Mrs. Webb has similar struggles with her children, Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace) and Wally Webb (Daniel David Stewart). She scolds Wally because he’s reading a book at the breakfast table.

“You know the rule’s well as I do – no books at table.  As for me, I’d rather have my children healthy than bright.” – Mrs. Webb.

After sending the kids off to school, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibb get together to prepare string beans for the winter and discuss how they can make their lives better. There is a trick to string beans of that era.  You break off one end and pull the string down.  Then you break the other end and pull the string down the other side.  Throwing the ends for use in compost.

“Y’know, Myrtle, it’s been the dream of my life to see Paris, France.” – Mrs. Gibbs  

But Doc Gibbs doesn’t want to go traipsing off to France.  He is right at home in Gettysburg.  He is, in fact, a dissatisfied doctor who is also a living, breathing, historian of the Civil War. He takes a two-week trip each year to visit the battlefields but Mrs. Gibbs doesn’t think this is much of a vacation.

And just as we are to get into the most intimate details of their worried lives, the Stage Manager interrupts to introduce Professor Willard (David LM McIntyre) to provide a history lesson about Grover’s Corners. In fact, it’s too much information.  But he’s more than happy to impart his knowledge and not stop talking until the Stage Manager introduces Mr. Webb, the editor, who is stuck back stage for a moment that seems to last forever.

“All males vote at the age of twenty-one.  Women vote indirect.” - Mr. Webb

If those words don’t knock you back to 1901, nothing will. Just one more layer to set you smack dab in the middle of Grover’s Corner.

“My, isn’t the moonlight terrible?” - Emily

And, as life continues, George and Emily find they have something in common and their relationship continues to grow.

“This is the way we were:  in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” – The Stage Manager

Later Simon Stimson (Jonathan Mastro), the inebriated disgruntled choir director, directs the overly loud choir as George and Emily find a way to get closer through the window of their second story homes.

Love finds a way.  It always does.   

And as Mrs. Soames (Donna Jay Fulks) and Mrs. Gibbs gossip about Simon Stimson, their husbands are pacing the floors at home wondering what they are up to.

“You think we’d been to a dance the way the menfolk carry on.” – Mrs. Soames

Neither likes the idea of their wives doing God-knows-what on a night like this.

And as the day comes to a close, Mr. Webb, closing shop, runs into Constable Warren, and tries to pry information, more grist for the mill, his newspaper.  He is very curious and also wants to know if his son Wally is smoking cigarettes. 

And when Mr. Webb gets home…

“Why aren’t you in bed?” – Mr. Webb

“I don’t know.  I just can sleep yet, Papa.  The moonlight’s so won-derful. – Emily

Makes you wonder if she talking about the moon or George.

I haven’t stop thinking about this production.  It is marvelous in so many ways.

Helen Hunt is a true professional of stage and screen.  As the Stage Manager, she is marvelous to watch and her technique is flawless.  Her concentration is spot on and her commitment to the truth is evident. She captures each moment with an emotional dedication that has her running from one end of the stage to the other. This is a magnificent performance that should not be missed.  

Lori Myers as Mrs. Gibbs is marvelous in that she wants more from her marital relationship. She is a very strong woman who wants the best for her family but in the end, her desires are not met even though she certainly tries.

Kati Brazda as Mrs. Webb does her best to keep the kids on the right path.  The ending is just marvelous, as she, performing in shadow, loves her children in the best way she knows how. She does not emotionally indulge her kids and it is a marvelous characterization.

Jeff Still as Doc Gibbs is a very soothing character.  He is stern when he wants to be but is an ideal nurturing father one could only want.  He scolds George one moment and gives him a raise all in the same breath. This is a marvelous performance.

James McMenamin as George Gibbs has many nice moments.  One is at the breakfast table when his father is giving him a strong lecture about chopping wood.  The other is having his sister sit on his lap and not knowing where to put his hands.

Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb also has remarkable moments.  She allows George to carry her books and, as her ponytail bobs back and forth, she stops to tell him how “stuck up” he is.  She is slightly confused about love and forthright in her approach to such matters. Her characterizations are delightful.   

Daniel David Stewart as Wally Webb has quite a presence.  His entrance in the last act is shocking because it is unexpected.  And as he sits silently, stoic in manner, in his Boy Scout uniform, he seems proud that this is the last image you will see.  This was a marvelous performance.

David LM McIntyre as the befuddled Professor Willard had an interesting characterization.  He was pleasant but his voice was not booming as college professors are supposed to be.  Maybe it was just the sound problem this particular night.

Tim Curtis as Editor Webb had some marvelous moments especially at the breakfast table giving George advice on the morning of George’s wedding to his daughter. Just that long lasting moment before he speaks to George is worth the price of admission.

Ronete Levenson as Rebecca Gibbs was quite delightful.  Her character is never at a loss for words and very imaginative.  She is the rumble in the room, the constant noise, which feeds in intensity as she goes off to school.  She is the quiet you hear when she leaves the room and she is the smile on one’s face moments after that has happened.  

Jonathan Mastro as Simon Stimson—the choir director is marvelous.  He is focused and makes his point. There is a moment where he stands not saying a word waiting for someone to take care of him.  It is a marvelous moment.  Also, he does a fine job as the musical director of this production and does some really fine work with the choir.

Donna Jay Fulks as Mrs. Soames is very funny as the gossipy neighbor and equally funny in the marriage scene.

Maximillian Osinski as Howie Newsome does a fine job as the milkman though there seems to be something missing from his character since his wife doesn’t want to be seen with him. Also, it seems his relationship with his customers Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs could have added an additional element.  Still his work was fine.

Coby Cetzug as Joe Crowell, Jr. and Nicholas R. Grava as Si Crowell are the paperboy who are always happy to give anyone information they desire.  They are watched over as the village of Grover’s Corner watches over their children.

Matthew Kimbrough as Constable Warren seems to fit the profile of a modern day constable. It was a nice performance in need of another characterization to fill out the role.

Jeffrey Hutchinson as Joe Stoddard the undertaker and Nathan Dame as Sam Craig fill in some of the small details in the graveyard scene in Act Three.  In it, the living talk about the dying as though it would never happen to them. 

Dana Jacks, Elizabeth Audley, Lesley Fera, and Lisa Goodman are part of the choir that sings beautifully. 

Jonathan Edwards plays Mr. Carter and Gordon Wells plays Farmer McCarty.

And the other cast members who fill in as citizens in this wonderful cast are: Dan Alemshah, Wayne Baldwin, Timothy Howard Davis, George Ketsios, Jonathan Palmer, Vincent Selhorst-Jones, Kathy Forsman, Vallean Mann, Margaret Miller, Pamela Munro, Sheila Raznick and Audrey Wishnick.  In a grand moment, the dead citizens bring their chairs and sit on stage and among us.  Some of the dead we recognize and it shocks us to see that they’ve passed. They are part of us, stationery, and want us to remember them. They are you and I, we. It is grand to see these actors supporting this production.   

David Cromer does a brilliant job of putting this all together.  He does this by making us wait for the moments and providing them with a full head of steam. It is profound work, moving and gripping in its finest of details. Children enter and exit with so much noise that we appreciate the quiet. (Anyone with kids will understand the preciousness of quiet time.)  Cromer lets moments come to you before he moves on—some of these stunning moments are the introduction of Editor Webb, the conversation with Simon Stimson, and the Webbs having breakfast the morning of the wedding. 

Cromer hits all the right notes in Thornton Wilder’s play as Emily observes in the last scene that it is time to re-reassess life.  Take a moment to examine the small things because in the end these are the things that matter most.

Run to see this production and take a friend who loves going home for the holidays.

Through Feb 13, 2012

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