Monday, September 20, 2004

Our Town (Ensemble)

Classical 'OUR TOWN' shines at Ensemble

I was once asked what was my favorite play. My mind scrolled through ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN,’ ‘GLASS MENAGERIE,’ ‘DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, and ‘AH, WILDERNESS.’ But, when my mouth opened the response was ‘OUR TOWN.’ ‘OUR TOWN,’ Thornton Wilder’s brilliant play which has become one of the most performed and studied plays in the English language and garnered the author the coveted Pulitzer Prize as the best play of the 1938 season.

On the surface the play appears to be a rendition of the daily activities found in small town America in the first third of the twentieth century. In reality, it is a tribute to basic humanistic views of life. Each time I see, direct, teach or have appeared in the play I bask in the after-glow and find myself a better person.

Wilder, who was brought up in Hong Kong and China, was imbued with the Asian perfectionist attitude. His education at Oberlin and Yale centered on the classics. These influences are deeply imbedded into the ‘OUR TOWN’ script. The stage manager represents the classical Greek chorus and the guide in Asian theatrical forms. The direct speeches to the audience create a theatricalism that stops the viewers from transferring their thoughts to the play’s characters and focuses their thoughts on themselves. He is exact in his descriptions of the sun rising and setting and where stores and houses are placed on the stage.

Interestingly, the exactness is misleading. Wilder states that Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where the play takes place, is located at 42 degrees, 40 minutes latitude and 70 degrees, 37 minutes. Exact? Hardly. That would place the city somewhere in the middle of the Arctic Belt. In another scene, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are stringing beans. Sorry, but beans don’t grow in New Hampshire in May. Why does Wilder do this? He wants the play to carry a universal message. This is not about the existence of those in Grover’s Corners, it is about all of us, all of our lives.

‘OUR TOWN’ appears to be so simple to stage because it requires almost no props or sets. What a good production requires is adherence to Wilder’s brilliant words, and that is often difficult for some theatres.

Ensemble Theatre, which has grown so much in its transition to the Cleveland Play House setting, has produced another winner with their version of ‘OUR TOWN.’ With the exception of her decision to combine acts two and three and some questionable use of accents, director Lucia Colombi displays a fine understanding of the play.

Wilder divided the play into three segments, each with a clear title: Act I: Daily Life, Act II: Love and Marriage and Act II: Death. He did this with purpose. Why Colombi decided to wipe out the emotional bridge from love and marriage to death, is inconceivable. In addition, consistent accents are mandatory in order to maintain the finite development of the script. These are people who lived their entire lives in the same place. Their sound much be a consistent New England twang.

The Ensemble cast is generally excellent. Ron Newell is wonderful as the Stage Manager. His easy attitude and New England practicality come through loud and clear. In major roles, Julia Kolibab as Mrs. Webb, Tom Kondilas as George Biggs, Robert Hawkes as Dr. Biggs, and Ron Miller, as Mr. Webb are rock solid. Unfortunately, Valerie Young’s Kathryn Hepburn imitation distracted from the reality of Mrs. Webb.

Bernadette Clemens seemed too old and aloof as the young Emily of Act I, but she grew beautifully into the role as the play developed. Her “goodbye to life” speech in the third act was superlative. How can anyone not be touched by her plaintiff question, “Do people ever really appreciate life when they’re living it?” Or, the answer, “Some, saints and poets, maybe.”

Harlowe R. Hoyt, in his review of a production of ‘OUR TOWN’ at the Jewish Community Center, stated in the April 25, 1958 Plain Dealer, “The burgeoning of love at the soda fountain between Ilene Latter and Roy Berko is one of the most delightful scenes of the play.” Of Tom Kondilas and Bernadette Clemens enactment of the same scene I say, “ditto!”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you’ve never seen ‘OUR TOWN,’ or if you need a good shot of appreciation for life, go see the Ensemble production. You won’t be sorry!