Fort Worth — They live in the Houston suburbs, but drove up to Waco on Saturday morning to attend a son’s college game. When the husband read in an events listing that Our Town was opening that night in Fort Worth, his wife told me, they booked tickets, made a U-turn, and headed north.
Such is the emotional pull of Thornton Wilder’s iconic 1938 play—and in his directorial debut as the new artistic director at Circle Theatre, Matthew Gray wisely allows the bedrock simplicity of the original to speak for itself. No gilding the lily, no flashy “concepts” allowed, just an appealing and gifted cast (led by the charismatic Kelsey Milbourn as the Stage Manager) with permission to be beautifully, comically, devastatingly human onstage.
And if, like the rest of us, you find yourself wiping tears and scrambling for a tissue (and not just at the end), don’t let anyone suggest you’ve been rolled by a piece of “sentimental” theater. Our Town is anything but. As flinty as the granite hills that encircle the town of Grover’s Corners, this is a play of plain-spoken truths that can make us laugh out loud…or ache with recognition:
Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
No. (Pause.) The saints and poets maybe...they do some.
I wish a fellow could get married without all this marching up and down.
Every man that’s ever lived has felt that way about it…but it hasn’t been any use.
It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another.
Yes, now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those...of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.
Y'know Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about 'em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts….Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, same as here.
Wilder’s vision for the play is individual and universal. It rockets from the journeying stars to the geological strata beneath our feet, along train tracks that lead to the cities, and up the hill to a centuries-old graveyard. But he settles, finally and affectionately, among the ordinary humans living day by day in a small New Hampshire town, just at the start of the twentieth century. We walk with parents and children, milkmen and choirmasters, church ladies and constables. And we learn their stories.
At Our Town’s center are the open-hearted, clear-eyed high schoolers George Gibbs (a warm, straight-talking Jacob Oderberg) and Emily Webb (the engaging Tia Laulusa), next-door neighbors since childhood, who sweetly weave their young lives into a romance, a marriage, and all that comes after. Emily is the brain (Laulusa positively sparkles with ideas and energy), happy to pass schoolwork “hints” from her bedroom window to George’s, and to let him know when she and her friends think he’s being “conceited.” He’s the town’s baseball star, popular in school (though no student) and waiting for the day he can toss his books and take to farming some family land.
In each other’s eyes, they see the person they’ve been looking for—though their surprised parents have trouble viewing these youngsters as grown-ups. To sharp-eyed, near-to-laughter Doc Gibbs (Jim Jorgensen’s portrayal is wry and empathetic), son George is still the boy he’s been gently “guilting” about leaving his mother to chop wood—“like she’s some hired girl that we keep around the house but that we don’t like very much.” Newspaper editor Webb (a thoughtful, emotions-on-sleeve Steven Pounders) adores his whip-smart Emily, and stares at George during a pre-wedding chat with the “Why him?” look of many a bride’s father.
Gigi Cervantes and Julienne Greer bring real-mom humor, pathos and substance to their lively portraits of Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, whose kitchens, gardens and lives touch at so many points. Julia Gibbs bursts into tears just thinking of her boy leaving home. Myrtle Webb, a “crisp” woman in Wilder’s description, won’t have displays of emotion cluttering her kitchen. She doesn’t weep until the middle of the wedding—and then has plenty to say.
The Stage Manager reminds us—just in case we’re inclined to short-change these strong ladies—how many thousands (even tens of thousands) of cooked meals and ironed shirts they produced (not to mention the children “brought up”) over decades of family life.
Milbourn’s Stage Manager is a magnetic, anchoring presence for this story and others—pulling us into the daily life of Grover’s Corners, then flinging us across time and space for the long view of the town’s past and future. She has the eye-gleam and amused smile of an old soul and the grace of a dancer: arranging chairs in one scene becomes an exercise in elegant movement. The Stage Manager plays some minor characters (including a much-entertained shop owner serving Emily and George their first “together” ice cream sodas) but is definitely a major power—starting and stopping scenes, nodding the actors offstage, inserting a quick flashback to fill in a plot point we’ve missed. “How do such things begin?” she asks—and then shows us.
Tim D’Auteuil has a nice turn as a fact-filled professor pontificating on town history. Dennis Maher’s Constable Warren is eternally on duty—and tired. Sam McCalla troubles us as bitter choir director Simon, whose dark view of life shadows him even to the grave. J.R. Bradford is steady and sociable as town milkman Howie Newsome, and Lana K. Hoover is touching as a giddy wedding guest and a poignant “Woman Among the Dead.”
Director Gray makes full use of Circle’s thrust stage, with characters rushing in from all directions to join (or sometimes question) the action. Even the massive corner columns come into play as “supporting” objects for characters in various states of wedding jitters. The minimal set by Donna Marquet (lit with stark serenity by Amy Poe and Lindsay Silva) is a bare wooden floor flowing toward a lapping black edge, as if existence might be about to fall away into…what? The stage’s rear wall carries ladders, stools and other simple props, and two round kitchen tables and chairs represent the Gibbs and Webb families. Aaron Patrick DeClerk’s costumes are a clean-lined interpretation of the period, but with precise and sometimes quirky details, i.e., Mrs. Gibbs’ rather domineering apron, and the Stage Manager’s surprisingly urban “bags” (that’s ‘30s hipster-speak for wide-legged trousers).
On opening night, the audience held a sprinkling of young teens—and it was easy to envy them the experience of seeing Our Town for the very first time. But it’s hard to imagine Wilder’s tough and tender play ever giving us a “been there, done that” feeling. Our Town is a self-renewing theatrical experience, able to evoke a fresh response each time we encounter it at a new point in our lives. Don’t we all see George and Emily’s romance as the biggest piece of the story when we’re young? But what and who is on our minds now? How much more gravitas do we “older folk” give to Mrs. Gibbs’ longing to see Paris before time runs out? How much of ourselves do we see in husbands and wives who love truly—but still get in the way of each other’s dreams? How much sadder does Mrs. Webb’s endless busy-ness seem to us, now that we’ve wised up enough to regret missed moments with our own children or loved ones?
Just last year, Our Town (which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1938) turned 80 years young…and seldom, if ever, can there be a week where one production or another isn’t up and running somewhere in the world. Times change and customs fade away (raise your hand if the milkman comes to your door), but Our Town has the spark of eternity about it.
In one of the play’s unexpectedly touching moments, Doc Gibbs admits to his wife that as a bridegroom, he was afraid the two of them “wouldn’t have material for conversation more’n’d last us a few weeks.” In eight decades, Our Town hasn’t stopped having things to say to us yet—and Circle Theatre’s season-opening production adds plenty of depth, feeling and fun to that ongoing theatrical conversation.