Our Town: Well-Traveled Play Arrives to Warm Welcome
By Lou Fancher
It’s possible that three-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Thorton Wilder and Bay Area theater director Susannah Martin share DNA.
Viewing Shotgun Players’ production of “Our Town,” the symbiotic strands spiraling between their artistic visions — seen through plot and performance, script and delivery — are seamlessly interwoven. If Wilder’s 1938 play about life in Grover’s Corner, a fictional New Hampshire town, broke early 20th-century theatrical ground, Martin’s rendition moves the play one giant, authentic step forward in the 21st century.
"Our Town" arrives at Shotgun well-traveled — countless school drama departments and professional troupes, like A.C.T., have been drawn to the rich artistic possibilities of Wilder’s unadorned yet eloquent language, the economies of the play’s sparse set design, and the freshness of unconventional seating and cast members who mix and mingle with the audience. With a narrator speaking directly to the audience (something Shakespeare had done long before but still revolutionary in 1930s American theater) "Our Town" suits directors’ and audiences’ contemporary sensibilities favoring inclusive, interactive experiences.
All of which could make another production ho-hum, but it doesn’t.
Act I establishes the first order: Deftly handling nuances of character, the ensemble as a whole captures innocence, which arrives like the early summer sun, and depth, with pauses and words that fall, hinting at gravity and the changing, cooler seasons ahead. We meet the Gibbs and Webb families, along with other townspeople. Guided by the Stage Manager (the narrator, Madeline H.D. Brown, who magically resembles and operates like an all-knowing, lively Julie Andrews/Mary Poppins figure) the action centers on daily life. The actors’ pantomimed preparing of meals, shelling of beans, delivery of milk and cream are elegantly simple. The words they speak are familiar, everyday, common. We know these people because they are us. By having the actors sing from amid us, or rise from the seat next to us and thunder down or up the stairs, Martin makes the experience visceral. We feel the actors’ harmony and discord in our own bodies.
Act II brings love and marriage into the picture as the childhood friendship between George Gibbs (a sincere Josh Schell) and Emily Webb (played with gusto and finesse by El Beh), blossoms into matrimony and parenting. The charm of first crushes and long marriages, caught in memories’ web and delivered unadorned, sparkles like dew but there’s enough tension to also remind us of icicles. We’re encouraged to recall days of being “a little bit crazy” with love—and made aware of how innocence can disappear as a small town’s streets fill with Fords instead of horses and people no longer leave their doors unlocked.
Act III is set in a cemetery, where “sorrow quieted down” reminds us to consider things we know, but “don’t take out and look at” very often. A relived twelth birthday, a handful of first and forever loves, the small town’s egregious deaths (one in childbirth; another, a suicide) or just a regular day viewed from the grave, are forceful reminders to pay attention before it’s too late. Whether compressed into a coffin or cowering under the umbrellas of mourners’ with broken hearts, Wilders’ search for something eternal in the face of mortality is like the play itself: plain and profound. “Stars are mighty good company,” as one character says, perhaps the only, best conclusion.
Martin isn’t the only one who transports Wilder’s gem of a play into magical realms. Sound design from Abigail Nessen Bengson and Shaun Bengson is understated and dignified in its perfectly engineered hymns, birdsongs, train whistles, rumbling thunder and more. Nina Ball (set design), Heather Basarab (lighting), and Christine Crook (costumes) achieve maximum effect with minimal fuss.
And it’s hard to imagine Wilder, who began writing plays while a student at Berkeley High in 1915, doing anything but giving this cast a standing ovation. Michelle Talagrow’s full-spectrum portrayal, Molly Noble’s vigorous consistency, infinitely likable and believable Tim Kniffin, blissfully spontaneous Josh Schell stand out as exceptional amid a substantial cast of their peers.