For a play written in 1938, Our Town has a way of never disappearing. A critically adored production closed Off-Broadway just weeks ago after two years, the longest running incarnation to date. The students of SMU Meadows School of the Arts performed their take on the citizens of Grover’s Corners over this past weekend. In high schools, colleges, and regional theaters across America, Emily Webbs and George Gibbses find each other over a strawberry ice cream soda year after year. And from now until the end of October, WaterTower Theatre is presenting one of the most poignant, touching, and honest productions of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play I’ve ever experienced.
Our Town can often come off as folksy or heavily steeped in nostalgia, longing dramatically for a time when the milkman delivered door-to-door and neighbors gossiped while snapping green beans on the porch. But too much syrup and showmanship is exactly what Wilder was railing against when he wrote the piece. Instead, he demanded a minimal set and straightforward delivery, nothing too cutesy to muck up the hauntingly beautiful story of life, love, and death. His emissary, the Stage Manager (Terry Martin, pulling double duty as director), consistently breaks the imaginary fourth wall, explaining to us every scientific, clinical, and anthropological fact we might need to know about the town and its people. The emotions, however, are left to be discovered like raindrops: slowly building until you find yourself in a downpour without an umbrella.
The acting is so uniformly strong that it’s difficult to tell who gathered the clouds and who signaled the rainbow. On one side of the stage, Dr. Gibbs (John Daniel Pszyk) and his wife Julia (the excellent Emily Scott Banks) are raising two children, same as their neighbors the Webbs (the wonderfully contrasting Stan Graner and Mary-Margaret Pyeatt). It’s their children who will fall in love and marry, but from the beginning we know that this story won’t be a fairy tale with a happy ending. As George Gibbs, Joey Folsom is wide-eyed, hopeful, and just about as wholesome as you could ever wish for. Maxey Whitehead expertly brings Emily Webb from inquisitive teenager to heart-wrenching adult with tremulous pockets of discovery. As the three acts hurtle toward their conclusion, it’s difficult to believe that these people don’t really exist.
Contributing to this sense of immediacy is the staging Mr. Martin has prepared. The stage is an unconventional thrust, with the actors scurrying through numerous aisles, up and down staircases, and even into the balconies of the theater, taking their conversations practically into our illuminated laps. Clare Floyd Devries’ set seems at first glance like a picture-perfect Wilder reincarnation, with two tables, some chairs, and a wall of chalkboards to signify each residence. It’s the surprise in Act III that elevates her design and the work of costume designer Michael A. Robinson to something truly astonishing.
When he wrote it at age 41, perhaps Wilder was experiencing a mid-life crisis. Why else would he choose to focus on the unassuming inhabitants of a small New Hampshire town in the early 1900’s, people living ordinary lives and dying unremarkable deaths? Perhaps because he’d learned a little by then that life’s most magical moments are hidden in the everyday actions. That even a seemingly routine day can be filled with enough heartbreak and longing if the routine isn’t yours to enjoy anymore.
Photo courtesy of WaterTower Theatre