8/30/2019        OUR TOWN                                         Theatrical Outfit




To open its 2019/2020 season, Theatrical Outfit has chosen to stage two American classics in Repertory, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project.  It’s a brilliant idea as both plays deal with “slices of Americana” with  highly theatrical, break-the-fourth-wall concepts.  The same cast will be performing both shows, and the repertory will continue throughout September.  Our Town starts the rep, with Laramie Project opening September 13.


We meet the cast shortly before the start, as they do their warm-ups in full view, greeting each other with cheerful welcome and smiling conversation. They introduce themselves to us by name, thoroughly establishing the “This may be artifice, but we’ll do everything possible to make it real” world of the play, still seeming post-modern despite having been conceived over 80 years ago.  It also establishes a “who’s who” mental scorecard, since the program (playing double duty for both shows), lists each actor’s role as either “ensemble” or “understudy.”


Our host is the Stage Manager, a pleasant guide who engages us directly, plays a role or two, sets the scenes, and lets us know everything we need to know at just the right moment and with just the right depth of detail.  Usually played by an avuncular male, here, the always-welcome Mary Lynn Owen proves the character is not rooted in any particular gender.  She paints in our imaginations panoramic views from a mountaintop cemetery,

blisteringly beautiful sunrises over Main Street, heart-rending glimpses into the future for most of the characters, and successful attempts at sharing her contentment with life, for “smelling the roses,” for appreciating the friend beside us, for relishing "this moment."


There are some aspects to this show that my analytical brain should find disturbing.  First, the insistence that this is a play about every town, every person.  My preference has always been for what makes a character or situation "exceptional."  I am always leery of writers who claim they are trying to "describe what it means to be {fill in the ethnicity, or gender, or region, or any-characteristic}."  Frankly, I'm not interested in what "defines" you as member-of-a-group, but what makes you exceptional, what this situation reveals about you as a person. 


But the genius of Wilder is that his “every person” is exceptional in his or her own way.  And, I daresay, that’s the point.  The character of America can almost be described as “exceptional” (in a good way, not in a jingoistic “American Exceptionalism” spirit).  “Unique” may be a better, less politically-charged word:  what makes an “Every American” can be described as those aspects that make them unique.


I think Mr. Wilder has brilliantly created characters who are recognizable even to those who don't share their history and lifestyle.  Of course, this is an admittedly white (ethnically-blind casting aside), working class, mostly-protestant community, but the scenes positively ooze "normality" -- almost a sense of "this is what we share with those-not-like-us."  People gossip, argue with spouses and siblings, fall in love, seek favors, offer forgiveness, worry about the world, enjoy a sunrise, grieve a loss, regret a choice.  Big generic things that define them as members of a distinct species, rather than as isolated defined-by-our-differences pigeonholes.


I also must admire Wilder's stated aim of stripping the play of theatrics (sets / props / period-and-place-specific costumes and trappings) , making it about "people rather than about a particular time or place."  But he consistently underscores the fact that we are watching actors performing a play, introducing the players by their real names, reminding us about intermissions, calling a pair of ladders “upstairs bedroom windows of neighboring houses.”  Through all this artifice, if the play is performed correctly, the humanity of the characters is underscored, emphasized, celebrated.


And here, it is not only performed “correctly,” it is performed exceptionally.  Ms. Owen routinely makes us forget the many men we have seen in prior productions playing this role, making us totally accept her as cop, preacher, indeed any number of townsfolks she chooses to inhabit.  She is supported by an absolutely marvelous ensemble, consisting (in alphabetical order) of Maggie Birgel, Allan Edwards, Michael Hanson, Asia Howard, Curtis Lipsey, Shaun MacLean, Stacy Melich, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, and Jayson Warner Smith.  I’ve seen almost all these actors in other venues, other roles, so it would be an easy matter to match an actor with a particular role; I suspect this will not violate “Spoiler Police” rules, but I also suspect it would violate the play’s (and author’s) post-theatrical concept.  And truth to tell, no one plays a single role.  Needless to say, in true ensemble fashion, no actor outshines another, all fit together in a tapestry of interaction and character, and no one is “left behind,” or not “up to the others.”


David Hyatt Crowe does a wonderful job in the director’s role, keeping the tone intimate, keeping the pacing compelling, and managing a few surprises (and modern flourishes) for those of us who have  known the play for too many years through more than a few productions.  All the tech aspects, set and projections, sound and lighting, are perfectly conceived and realized, and seemingly repertory-friendly for what is required for Laramie Project.


Needless to say, I am in eager anticipation to watching this cast, this creative team, tackle the Tectonic Theater Project’s creation, and, if it is done with a fraction of the skill as Our Town, it will be eminently memorable, and will carry with it vestiges of Wilder’s characters and the ethos of Grover’s Corners.


But more on that in two weeks.  In the meantime, Our Town is well worth a visit, maybe even more than one.


As a final digression, in  Michael Cristofer's 1977 Pulitzer Winner, The Shadow Box, a group of Hospice residents grapple with staying alive, even as they are dying.  The play concludes with the cast describing everything about life worth cherishing, with the last line a resounding "This Moment!"  Our Town embraced the same idea forty years earlier, and now, forty years later, Theatrical Outfit reminds us why it's an idea that never fades, that cannot be over-stated, that can even be broadened to include other towns (like Laramie WY) that define the “American Experience.”


Our Town  is an eighty-year old play that seems fresh, that sings to our hearts and minds, that is filled with moment after moment, character after character, that fades from memory only with reluctance.  I have never lived in a small town, nor fallen in love with the girl next door.  But now, I just may be envious of those who have, thanks to Theatrical Outfit and this outstanding ensemble of artists.


     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #TOOurTown   #ThisMoment)

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