Sunday, July 09, 2006

Our Town (Porthouse Theatre/KSU)

‘OUR TOWN’ is effectively and uniquely staged at Porthouse

I consider ‘OUR TOWN,’ which is now being performed at Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of the Blossom Center, to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, has become one of the most performed and studied plays in the English language.

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.

Playwright Thornton Wilder, who was brought up in Hong Kong and China, was imbued with an 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, yet these places only exist in our minds.

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 not place the town anywhere near New Hampshire. 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.

Wilder writes exact stage directions in the script. No scenery, the lines say, but some suggestions are made. Usually two trellises, two ladders, and chairs and tables are used. The New England dialect is another specific device. The “ay yehs” and other area sounds are on the printed page. It is here that you must be warned about the ‘OUR TOWN’ at Porthouse. Matthew Earnest, the show’s director, has thrown much of the traditional Wilder devices to the wind. No ladders, no trellises, no New England accents. He has given the show a whole new feel. Instead of slowly paced, the actors and scene people charge around the stage, the stage manager is a theatre stage manager, not a town spokesman, per se. He plays for laughs, but doesn’t lose the pathos.

If you are a Wilder traditionalist, it’s going to take you a while to adjust to Earnest’s concept. I wiggled through much of the first act as the barefoot actors ran hither and yon. But then I found myself fascinated by how the interpretation, instead of ruining my experience, heightened it. I finally concluded that this production worked, and worked well!

Wilder divided the play into three segments, each with a clear title: Act I: Daily Life, Act II: Love and Marriage, and Act III: Death. Earnest has highlighted the differences by pacing them to fit the specific actions of the act. Again, very creative.

The cast is excellent. Monica Bell and Elizabeth Ann Townsend are superlative as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. Rohn Thomas has the right touch for Doc Gibbs. His father-son talk with his son George (Ryan Stutz) was a delight as was the scene between George and his father-in-law (Christopher Seiler). Lenne Snively was endearing as Mrs. Soames, the town busy-body.

John Woodson gave a whole new interpretation to the role of the Stage Manager. He did it effectively with creativity and confidence.

Emily Pote was physically picture-perfect as Emily and did a creditable job, though I would have preferred a less cocky attitude. Her “goodbye to life” speech in the third act was a little fast, not getting the emotional feel out of the scene. This is one of the most plaintive scenes in American theatre. 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.”

Stutz was very good as George, though he didn’t fit Wilder’s description of a “great gangling thing;” but, his acting was right on and his boyish innocence worked nicely.

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.” About the Pote and Stutz enactment of the same scene I say, “ditto!”

I was disappointed in the lighting by well known designer Severn Clay. There were dark spots on stage and actors sometimes were in the dark or partly in the dark for no theatrical reason. This was very apparent in Act III.

S. Q. Campbells’s costumes were era correct, though all the white was sometimes distracting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you’ve ever seen a traditional production of ‘OUR TOWN,’ you are going to have to leave your pre-conceptions at the theatre’s entrance or you’ll fight with the interpretation. Just sit back, take director Matthew Earnest’s concept as a legitimate alternative, and you’ll enjoy it. If you haven’t seen the play before, and need a good shot of appreciation for life, go see the Porthouse production.