The fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, might be the idyllic America of yesteryear to which many long to return. The problem is it doesn’t exist, nor has it ever. Wilder invented the place as the setting for his 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Our Town, and emphasized its metatheatricality by presenting it on a stage, in this case that of the Pasadena Playhouse, and then making its main character the Stage Manager, played here by Jane Kaczmarek.
After appearing last season opposite Alfred Molina in the Geffen Playhouse production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Kaczmarek continues her successful streak on the stage, adopting a folksy, authorial voice as the play’s narrator figure. This stylistically conventional co-production of the American classic from Deaf West Theatre spotlights outstanding performances, amplifying the poetic power of Wilder’s musings on the fleeting nature of life and the human bonds between us.
“This is some scenery for those who think they need scenery,” the Stage Manager tells the audience as ropes are draped over ladders on either side of the playing area, comprising set designer Ann Closs Farley’s minimalist frame for the action. Upstage is a bare brick and cement wall with a row of chairs for castmembers awaiting their cues. Though it may seem like a modernist approach by director Sheryl Kaller (Mothers and Sons, Next Fall), this is in fact how the play is traditionally presented.
Set in 1901, the first act concerns itself with the everyday stuff of life — getting the kids off to school for mom, getting to work on time for dad, spats between brother and sister, the milkman making his rounds, etc. Focus gradually zeroes in on neighboring families the Gibbses and the Webbs. Dr. Gibbs (Jud Williford) and Mrs. Gibbs (Alexandria Wailes) are parents to George (Deric Augustine) and Rebecca (Amanda McDonough), while Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Russell Harvard, Annika Marks) have a daughter named Emily (Sandra Mae Frank).
The 1940 film adaptation helped jump-start the career of William Holden in the role of George, a thinly sketched character who falls in love with Emily, literally the girl next door. Augustine conveys an affable presence as George, but is unable to expand on the limitations of a character best summed up as a simple guy who loves baseball and plans one day to own a farm.
As for Emily, the combination of deaf actor Frank (seen on Broadway as Wendla in Deaf West's Spring Awakening revival) and Sharon Pierre-Louis, who provides her voice, is a winning one. Frank oozes girlish vitality matched by Pierre-Louis, whose recitation seamlessly unites the binary performance. In the second act, life overtakes George and Emily, who are barely adults on the morning of their wedding day. At first there are doubts and cold feet, but the ceremony goes off without a hitch and the audience is left expecting the usual ups and downs of matrimony to follow.
Plotless and meandering, Our Town could be read as a slice of life from a simpler time, but something else is going on in Wilder’s seemingly random string of events. Again and again, he evokes the concept of time, as when a historian fills us in on the geology of the land, its granite mountains shaped by centuries. There’s mention of a time capsule placed in the cornerstone of a new building containing a bible, Shakespeare's plays, The New York Times and a copy of the very play we are watching, Our Town. Wilder begins his play in the early morning, when a pair of twins were born, and ends at night, after Emily’s spirit surrenders her bond with the past and settles into her final resting place.
The last act jumps ahead to 1913, after Emily has died in childbirth and has joined her deceased mother-in-law and other townspeople in the graveyard. Unlike Emily, they have no desire to rejoin the living, only regret for how much they took for granted. Emily revisits her past, a childhood birthday for which her mother busily prepares, unaware of her daughter’s ghost. "We never look at each other!" Emily cries, voicing a complaint even more acute today than the day it was written. "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" she asks, planting the same question in the minds of the audience.
With its compelling ideas, daring staging and unhurried poetry, Our Town stands the test of time, but the lack of a sturdy plot and slow progress toward significance are problematic. However, even with a running time of three hours that includes two intermissions, the Pasadena Playhouse-Deaf West production moves faster than expected. Kaller directs with an invisible hand, deftly moving her sprawling cast through fluid scene transitions.
Standout acting by Wailes and Marks as neighboring housewives is bolstered by equally accomplished work from Williford and Harvard as their husbands. (Harvard, another Spring Awakening veteran, drew awards and acclaim off-Broadway in Nina Raines' Tribes, and was memorable in the recurring role of Mr. Wrench on Fargo.) But Frank’s Emily is the beating heart of the production, while Kaczmarek’s Stage Manager is its overseeing intellect.
This core of accomplished actors is surrounded by a highly versatile supporting cast, including David Gautreaux, Leonard Kelly-Young and Troy Kotsur, who turns signing into graceful choreography when he’s not portraying the bitter town drunk, Simon Stimson. Glee regular Dot-Marie Jones also appears in a small ensemble role.
While Our Town sometimes thumbs its nose at dramaturgy, it offers stunning poetic passages and observations on life that impact the audience in unexpected ways. While Wilder’s writing alone makes it worth revisiting, the chief reason to see this production is to experience the kind of uniquely talented cast that only Deaf West Theatre can assemble.
Venue: Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena
Cast: Jane Kaczmarek, Marie-France Arcilla, Deric Augustine, Harold Foxx, Sandra Mae Frank, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Russell Harvard, Dot-Marie Jones, Leonard Kelly-Young, Troy Kotsur, Annika Marks, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, On Shiu, Alexandria Wailes, Jud Williford
Director: Sheryl Kaller
Playwright: Thornton Wilder
Set designer: David Meyer
Costume designer: Ann Closs Farley
Lighting designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Sound designers: Leon Rothenberg, Jonathan Burke
Choreographer: David Dorfman
Presented by Pasadena Playhouse, Deaf West Theatre