Theatre Review: ‘Our Town’ at Theatrical Outfit

Photos by Casey Gardner

Theatrical Outfit is presenting Thornton Wilder’s 81-year-old American classic play “Our Town,” directed by David Hyatt Crowe, running in repertory with “The Laramie Project” until Sept. 29.

Be sure to check the schedule on the website so you’ll know which night each play is being done.

We should mention that this is the Outfit’s esteemed artistic director Tom Key’s 25th year, and he is trying to make a statement of a much-needed global community by focusing on these two plays, both of which occur in small towns yet have universal significance. The plays are performed by the same ten people; they have their hands full.

“Our Town” has been read by countless high school and college students and performed on stage, screen and television many times; it won the Pulitzer Prize. Da Vinci said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. The company is heeding that axiom, for the often affecting production is stripped of all frills, complex sets or props, as Wilder indicated. Theatre scholars would call the play non-illusionistic, presentational drama. Most of us would call it a depiction of small town life that has gentle but insistent metaphysical urgings: We’re concerned with the eternality of “something.”

The setting is the fictitious town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire; the time is 1901. Emily Webb (Maggie Birgel) and George Gibbs (Shaun MacLean) are high school sweethearts. Doc Gibbs (Allan Edwards) and Mrs. Gibbs (Maria Rodriguez-Sager) are George’s parents; Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Jayson Warner Smith and Stacy Melich) are Emily’s parents.

When Wilder wrote his play many years ago, it was unheard of that the stage manager of a theatrical company be seen or heard. As everybody knows by now, “Our Town’s” Stage Manager (Mary Lynn Owen) is not only onstage, she is the godlike main character who introduces us to the play, offers detailed explanations from everything to local geography to the nature of infinity, and also handily plays other parts. Actually, several of the actors play multiple parts.

Back to George and Emily: Soon they are engaged, and Act II focuses on the wedding day activities, including the marriage itself. Mr. MacLean is a fine and sensitive George, and Ms. Birgel is a lovely Emily, vulnerable yet strong and yearning for the beauty and happiness life can offer. In Act III she breaks your heart; more of that shortly.

This “Our Town” has a fine cast, from Curtis Lipsey, who does triple duty as Howie Newsome, Professor Willard, and Sam Craig, to Michael Hanson as the town’s alcoholic choirmaster. Asia Howard is also triple cast and is accomplished.

By the way, the only reason I can give you any cast member’s name is because I asked for a list. In the program the actors are called “Company Members,” presumably because they are also playing in “The Laramie Project”; and it distinguishes them from understudies. This makes little sense to me; it would be easy to insert a cast list. What I’ve never seen, in a long history of playgoing, is asking the audience to guess who’s playing who. I suppose we critics have to complain about something.

I must also say that the much esteemed actor (and playwright) Ms. Owens seems a bit miscast as the Stage Manager—and it’s not because the part is usually played by a man (I find the change quite refreshing). On opening night she seemed a bit vocally tentative here and there; and for some reason she’s dressed in modern-day casual clothes. I found myself wondering if her scarf was by Hermès.

But the play’s the thing: Act III is the famous graveyard scene, and suddenly we’re in a remembrance and meditation that can induce weeping, and both the living and the dead remind us of the ephemeral nature of life. Ms. Birgel’s grown Emily is powerful: the standout player in the show, if I had to name one.

I could not, however, escape the nagging notion that the entire cast is somehow saving itself for the powerful Matthew Shepard play “The Laramie Project,” starting soon. But I suspect this talented cast will get better and better. Mr. Crowe, one of my favorite directors in Atlanta, does his best to breathe life into “the old chestnut,” as naughty folks sometimes call “Our Town.” But it’s almost a superhuman task.

Still and all, when the moment is right, the play has the power to make you confront your own mortality and immortality at the same time. How many plays can do that?

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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