The Ridgelea Reports on Theatre
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” at Long Wharf through November 2
By Tom Nissley
Long Wharf Theatre is celebrating a fiftieth anniversary, and the first play of the golden season is a new production of “Our Town.” Director Gordon Edelstein sort of blew the stage open in designing the show. It still takes place in the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, but in order to bring the reality of New Haven (and a great deal more of urban America) into the staging, the central role of the Stage Manager is played by black actress Myra Lucretia Taylor, and most of the families involved in the story are integrated black and white and Hispanic ones – cast, in other words, without ethnic consideration. It is very quickly apparent that this is not the “Our Town” you might have seen just a few years ago. After adjusting to that awareness, I think you’ll agree that the quite diverse company presents a pretty good product, and feel satisfied with most of what meets the ear and eye.
“Our Town” is traditionally presented with very few pieces of scenery, and this production honors that with a bare stage, a lot of available chairs and a couple of tables that can become the kitchens of both the Gibbs and the Webb houses. These houses are important because they were next door neighbors and George Gibbs (Rey Lucas) and Emily Webb (Jenny Leona) fell in love across the side garden. The two teen-agers are beautifully acted. For that matter all the personal acting in the play is well done.
It was fun to watch Mother Gibbs (Linda Powell) and Mrs. Webb (Christina Rouner) stock their stoves and cupboards in the imaginary kitchens, or accept milk and cream from Howie Newsome (Jojo Gonzalez). Doc Gibbs (Don Sparks) and Mr. Webb (Leon Addison Brown), as well as Simon Stimson (Robert Dorfman) and Mrs. Soames (Ann McDonough) also brought familiar characters to life.
The set design (Eugene Lee) was clean and bright, clever in its change from scenic hillside to blank background, less effective in the projection of the church window, which in any event, was unnecessary. Sound (John Gromada) and lighting (James Ingalls) were well done, and the costumes (Emily Rebholtz) were effective. But see footnote*.
Edelstein has departed in another way from traditional staging, by adding a huge cast of persons to act as a visible chorus. This is a little noticeable during the wedding in Act 2, which is well attended, and it is extremely noticeable in Act 3, where the graveyard is populated all around! Fifty graves for the fiftieth anniversary? Not really. It could make sense if you counted all the graves likely to be in an old cemetery, but I think I’m safe in observing that Grover’s Corners Cemetery has never been seen that way before. Because the cast is diverse especially in multi-colored American faces, and some young ones, too, it makes a striking impact. (If you’re new to “Our Town” graves means persons seated peacefully and for the most part silently on chairs that in this case cover the entire rear portion of the stage).
What’s the bottom line? Long Wharf’s “Our Town” is distinctive and interesting. It’s true to the core of this famous and classic play, and it tells the story accurately. It’s not cluttered with scenery that shouldn’t be there, though it is a little cluttered with people. I’d say it will be appreciated by those who’ve visited, and is not likely to set a new standard for high school productions, which will continue, and probably have already experimented with, switching genders and races to make the cast whole.
*When you’re watching the end of Act 3, keep your eyes out for a mysterious touch in the closing scene, when George very effectively dissolves in tears at the gravesite. As the lights dim you’ll notice the red color on the soles of a very expensive pair of dress shoes that the successful young farmer wore to the funeral. It’s a little disconcerting to imagine how much of the $350 legacy that modernized the farm would have been needed to pay for those shoes, and if you are prone to distractions, there is one.
Tickets and information at www.Longwharf.org or call 203-787-4282