Our Town: A testament to the ensemble glories of the festival acting company

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: David Cooper

Photo: David Cooper

Our Town

By THORNTON WILDER

Directed by MOLLY SMITH

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. —  It’s doesn’t take the Shaw Festival’s production of Our Town very long to establish its kinship with Thornton Wilder’s sublime play. This not so much a case of the festival asserting its authority over the material as it is one of achieving harmony with a script that seeks to work its wonders on a virtually bare playing area with a minimum of props.

By the time that those two famous step-ladders are centre stage and the young George Gibbs and Emily Webb have mounted them to share with us a few endearing moments of their early courtship, the community of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, is taking shape. We’ve started to know the townsfolk as they were at the beginning of the last century — be they Emily’s father, the local newspaper editor who disarmingly informs us that Grover’s Corners is a rather dull place, or Simon Stimson, the drunken church organist, or Howie Newsome, the local milkman who is always ready to pause for a chin-wag during his local deliveries.

We never really see Howie’s metal milk basket, but we know it’s there — just from the effort it takes him to hoist it and its contents onto the kitchen table. In such ways does an invisible world acquire substance. So by the time, we see George and Emily on those adjacent ladders, we’re ready to accept that they’re actually leaning out of their respective bedroom windows, discussing the day’s schoolwork, and starting to fall in love.

Set designer Ken MacDonald is no stranger to the creation of elaborate and imaginative stage creations. But here, he subtly subscribes to the playwright’s dictum that less is more. The very whiteness of those ladders, of the planking on the floor, of the ghostly scrim at the back of the Royal George Theatre stage, of the pale moon that hovers over the graveyard in the final scene — all contribute to the essence of Our Town as a dream play, albeit one that is anchored to the

realities of living and dying. The production is quietly, unobtrusively colour-coded, and MacDonald’s effort is complemented by William Schmuck’s fine costumes and Kimberly Purtell’s stunning lighting.

Director Molly Smith and her creative team are all on the same page here in seeking to honour the sensibility of a frequently misunderstood playwright who once defined his vision for Our Town in this way: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind — not in things, not in ‘scenery.’” Smith’s meditative production often seems like a tone poem, but although intensely moving, it never indulges in the kind of treacly sentimentality that an exasperated Wilder always

considered to constitute a fatal misreading of his dramatic intent.

The vagaries of life, love, and death are his themes — along with a constant awareness of the ephemeral nature of human existence against the canvas of a possibly unfathomable universe. What price the life of a simple village against the life of the stars? That’s one of the unsettling questions posed by this 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. So Our Town presents some harsh truths — indeed, in that final extraordinary scene in the cemetery where we encounter the voices of the dead, we won’t necessarily hear what we want to hear. But its tough love also reveals the possibilities inherent in acceptance and resilience

All this is told with a deceptive simplicity, yet it provides the Shaw Festival’s new season with some of its most powerful and affecting moments. It also unintentionally offers an embarrassing contrast to the festival’s companion production of Alice In Wonderland, where lavish designs and overblown visual effects are no compensation for a piece that sinks like a stone dramatically.

Meanwhile, this Our Town is a further testament to the ensemble glories of the festival acting company. Benedict Campbell, outstanding as the stage manager, is essential to finding and sustaining the piece’s elusive texture. Our guide and frequent confidante, a mentor for whom time frequently seems to have no beginning and no end, Campbell’s stage manager exudes a quiet authority that compels our attention. But in the context of this play the stage manager can be a

man for all seasons, so it seems entirely reasonable that he should show up in other guises as well — as a cleric presiding over George and Emily’s wedding, as a delightful participant in the play’s celebrated malt shop scene.

But every performance here is substantial. It’s a genuine pleasure to have that fine actor David Schurmann returning to the Shaw company with fine portrayals of both a garrulous local historian and the local undertaker. The always dependable Patrick Galligan is the somewhat weary town doctor, and Patrick McManus further demonstrates his versatility as Mr, Webb, the newspaper editor. Charlie Gallant and Kate Besworth are funny, touching and entirely believable as George and Emily, the youngsters who — sadly as it turns out — seem to symbolize our faith in a good future. Peter Millard and Sharry Flett again demonstrate their skill with beautifully etched  cameos —  he as the drunken, suicidal organist, she as a garrulous, wedding-loving matron named Mrs. Soames.

It’s a play that demands that cameo characterizations be established with a few efficient strokes — demands solidly met by Catherine McGregor and Jenny L. Wright as the mothers, respectively, of the bride and groom, and by Jeff Irving as the talkative Howie Newsome.

The Shaw Festival has a particular mandate in its playbills to examine what it has called the beginnings of the modern age. Structurally, Our Town serves that mandate well: Wilder’s concept for the play was seen as foolhardy in many quarters — until it became a hit and won the Pulitzer Prize. Yet, the world of Grover’s Corners, with its portrait of a predominately Protestant Anglo-Saxon culture, seems curiously cocooned from the modern era, with nary a glimmering of the pluralistic society that was starting to emerge even at the dawning of the 20th Century. Could the play possibly work with non-traditional casting? Well maybe the Shaw Festival, a theatre with a reputation for taking bold risks, might put that question to the test in a future production. Meanwhile, for the moment, let’s celebrate a stellar achievement.

(Our Town continues at the Shaw Festival until Oct. 16. Ticket

information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)

Set designer:  KEN MACDONALD

Costumed designer: WILLIAM SCHMUCK

Lighting designer: KIMBERLY PURTELL

Original music and sound designed by JAMES SMITH

Stage Manager: Allan Teichman

Assistant Stage Manager: Leigh McClymont

Stage Manager: Benedict Campbell

CAST

Sam Craig / Baseball Player: David Ball

Tess Benger: Rebecca Gibbs

Emily Webb: Kate Besworth

Constable Warre: Aaron Ferguson

Mrs Soames: Rebecca Gibbs Sharry Flett

Lady in Box / Ensemble

George Gibbs: Charlie Gallant

Dr Gibbs: Patrick Galligan

Ensemble: Rebecca Gibian

Howie Newsome: Jeff Irving

Joe Crowell / Si Crowell / Baseball Player / Belligerent Man: Billy Lake

Robert Markus: Wally Webb

Mrs Gibbs: Catherine McGregor

Mr Webb: Patrick McManus

Simon Stimson: Peter Millard

Lady in Balcony / Ensemble: Julain Molnar

Professor Willard / Joe Stoddard: David Schurmann

Mrs Webb: Jenny L Wright


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