"Our Town" Opens Long Wharf's 50th

By Tom Holehan

The Pulitzer Prize winning classic “Our Town” opens the Long Wharf Theatre’s 50th anniversary season on a celebratory note. Principal cast members in this revival have all graced the New Haven theatre in years past and there is also a special tribute included in the production to other LWT luminaries who are no longer with us.

“Our Town” is, of course, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 masterpiece about life, love and death in the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners, circa 1901-13. At its center is the growing romance between George Gibbs and Emily Webb, next-door neighbors who fall in love, get married have children and, well, that’s the play. For Long Wharf’s opener, Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein has opted for color blind casting and a racially diverse cast starting with the crucial role of the Stage Manager (African American actress Myra Lucretia Taylor). As our narrator and guide through the play’s three acts. Taylor is blessed with a warm, maternal smile and a lilting voice but her Stage Manager is so aloof and casual, she might as well be in another play. It’s a slow, chilly performance that is often hard to hear. This proves a serious casting misstep in a production that otherwise can still be recommended.

Best about this “Our Town” is the central romance of Emily and George who, as played beautifully and without artifice by Jenny Leona and Rey Lucas, give the story a pair of lovers to truly care about.  Indeed, this particular production (after a glacially paced first act) finally springs to life with a pitch-perfect rendering of the “soda shop scene” detailing the initial moment when George and Emily first fall in love. Also fine is theatre veteran Christina Rouner as Emily’s mother. Rouner is equal parts starch and sugar and never sentimentalizes or condescends to the character. The other parental roles are well handled by good actors like Leon Addison Brown (Mr. Webb) and Don Sparks and Linda Powell (Mr. & Mrs. Gibbs).

Edelstein’s direction makes some odd choices, however. The use of props is inconsistent, some real, some mimed. New Hampshire accents are attempted by some cast members but not by others and just because these are country people, does everyone have to talk so slowly? It was a nice idea on Edelstein’s part to utilize non-actors from the New Haven community to play various townspeople, but the powerful finale set in the town’s graveyard is so overpopulated it produces unwanted chuckles. Did the entire town die? At least two rows of chairs could be removed without any damage to the overall effect.

I did feel, though, that the idea of adding black and white photographs of some of Long Wharf’s dearly departed (actors Rex Robbins and Joyce Ebert among others) in the cemetery sequence, a very moving and thoughtful one. And Miss Leona does a memorable job with Emily’s lovely “Goodbye World” speech at the play’s finale. I’ve seen at least ten productions of “Our Town” in my theatergoing lifetime and even lesser productions of this durable classic can still produce tears. At Long Wharf, my eyes once again were not dry during the curtain call.

“Our Town” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through November 2. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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