Thornton Wilder's Our Town is head and heart, not flash and fire. It's theatrical, poetic, and philosophical. For its 75th anniversary, Ford's Theatre offers a production that is handsome and reverent but lacks a definitive edge.
Our Town needs nothing to inflate its honor as a modern masterpiece of imaginitive theatre. Meant to be performed with a minimum of scenic elements and mimed stage business, Our Town is really a giant of a play that holds a mirror up to humanity - one of the theatre's greatest tools. It reminds us of ordinary days we take for granted and how fleeting our time on earth can be. The Pulitzer Prize-winning script also muses about the afterlife with open-minded, humanism without a specific religious point of view.
I think more people have read Our Town than have actually seen productions of the play. From high school English class, our collective memories drum up a quiet New England town where a plain-speaking stage manager guides us through a typical day. During the course of the three-act play, bright Emily Webb and boy-next-door George Gibbs quietly fall in love as teens, marry and experience death.
Our Town's setting - Grover's Corners, New Hampshire - is not meant to be a specific town but a placeholder, where our own hearts are at home. This is not a play about a slice of American life; it's about life within the universe.
Director Stephen Rayne (Ford's Parade, The Heavens Are Hung in Black) certainly understands Our Town and the all-inclusive message it offers. His direction does not stand in the way of the play's simple power and is faithful to Wilder's intentions.
Rayne cast the play with a broad ethnic palette, to present an Our Town for our times. The culturally diverse casting works, like color-blind casting works for Shakespeare or opera, but it really doesn't offer a new slant on the text. I think the audience is capable of seeing the characters without focusing on the color of their skin. Radical perhaps 30 or 40 years ago, the melting-pot casting here looks almost quaint.
In the pivotal roles of Emily and George, Alyssa Gagarin and Nickolaus Vaughan are fresh-faced, earnest and share a gentle chemistry. In their early scenes, they both pushed the gee-willikers vibe a little too hard, which drew attention to their performances and not the characters they were playing. Luckily, during the second act courtship scene, Vaughan and Gagarin stopped pushing and relaxed enough to trust Wilder's words to carry them. When George and Emily connect over ice cream sodas, we see the buds of their romance blossom and the play's tender magic can just about shine through.
Our Town is nothing without the iconic Stage Manager to guide the audience and serve as the puppet master for the actors. It is surely believable in 2013 for a stage manager to be female - of any race. With stage credits ranging from New York's Roundabout Theatre and London's Young Vic, plus film and television roles, Portia is certainly an accomplished actress and has a likable presence. As a 30-something woman of color and not the traditional 60 year-old, pipe-smoking man, Portia should be believable as a stage manager for today. However, her delivery sometimes strained to sound contemporary within Wilder's distinctive speech patterns for the character.
Among the other actors, James Konicek (Doc Gibbs), Jenn Walker (Mrs. Gibbs), Craig Wallace (Editor Webb) and Kimberly Schraf (Mrs. Webb) offered graceful performances. They were each believable portraits of Wilder's idealized parent figures. Our Town is also peopled with memorable supporting characters, such as stuffy Professor Willard and Simon Stimson, choir master and town drunk. For these roles, Rayne cast the skilled and inventive John Lescault and Tom Story as Willard and Stimson, respectively. The ensemble plays the other Grover's Corners inhabitants and provides background sound and music throughout the play.