Fort Worth — It takes a village to do Our Town right. Happily, Stolen Shakespeare Guild seems able to find a village-sized cast whenever they want, and their latest production is crowded with straight-up, honest, and emotionally engaging performances from the youngest to the oldest actors onstage. It’s a fine and heartfelt addition to the company’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama series at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center's Sanders Theatre.
Director Nathan Autrey has done the best thing possible with Thornton Wilder’s earnest (yet edgy) 1938 play: he’s left it to speak for itself, definitely the right choice for this worn-to-gold bit of American theater. Autrey also designed the set, with Lauren Morgan as scenic designer—a collection of wooden stepladders and whitewashed spindle chairs, backed by a chalk-outline drawing of the tiny New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners, circa 1901. Morgan’s costumes are nicely detailed, and Bryan Douglas’ spotlighting picks out characters as they become focal points in the minimalist setting. Everything combines to tell us that we are, at once, in a particular town…and in every town on earth.
It’s hard to grow up in America and not have seen Our Town at least once. Wilder’s play tells the intertwined stories of some of Grover’s Corners inhabitants: George Gibbs and Emily Webb, young neighbors who grow up and fall in love, their parents and siblings, and the people around them: friends from the church choir, an embittered church organist, the young men who bring the newspapers and the milk. And overseeing them all is the Stage Manager, who talks to us, to the characters—and even at times to the actors who play them.
SSG veteran Delmar Dolbier is at his best in this pivotal role. Flat-voiced, a cool customer, his Stage Manager (Wilder himself played the role a few times) is a bearded wise man who states the facts, figures and fates of the people onstage. And strangely, his cool manner leaves us free to do the emotional work, to bring up out of our own experiences the beautiful, terrifying, joyful mess of feelings that connects us to the characters onstage. The Stage Manager talks of “nature pushing and contriving” through the ages, running humanity through the same cycles—love, marriage, death—but somehow we sense, and tap into, an endless cosmic compassion that runs beneath the dry words.
Nick Pinelli and Bridie Marie Corbett tug hearts as the young lovers. She’s pretty, smart, and sharp-elbowed; he’s steady and deeply sweet-natured. As the parents, four actors bring warmth and realism to their portrayals of Doc Gibbs (Kim Titus) and wife Julia (Rose Anne Holman), newspaper editor Charles Webb (Joel Taylor) and wife Myrtle (Janette Oswald). They’re all very good, but Titus and Holman glow with special warmth in a scene where they recall the joys and fears of their own wedding day: Will we run out of things to say? Mary Strauss plays George’s little sister Rebecca, and is quite wonderful telling George about a letter that opened her mind and heart. Even the smallest roles are written thoughtfully, with Kyle Lester especially affecting in his portrayal of doomed church organist Simon.
Our Town is something of a personal litmus test: if you don’t wind up fishing for Kleenex, with a catch in the heart or a teardrop in the eye, it’s time to check for a pulse—because it’s not the play, it’s you. And no, it’s not to be lumped with YouTube kitten videos and other such heart candy. There’s much more than sentimentality here. For a millennium or two, humans have understood that living life deeply means thinking the unthinkable once in a while: that we’re none of us here forever. Hermano, bebe, car la vida es breve, said the old Spaniards—Drink, brother, for life is short—and they probably cribbed that motto from the even more ancient Romans. Ferris Bueller agreed more recently: Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Our Town insists, from start to finish, that these little stories are part of the biggest story of all: the story of people on the earth, searching for love and meaning—then, now and possibly forever. The Babylonians, the Stage Manager reminds us, were once just everyday families sitting down to an ordinary evening meal. One day, like them, we’ll be ancient history too.
But as the young wife and mother Emily comes to know, people simply can’t hold on to the notion that every day should be treated as a precious and one-time-only gift. We’re too distracted, too busy—and that, perhaps, is the best reason to grab a hanky and go see Our Town once in a while. Thanks for the reminder, SSG.