WaterTower Theatre's Stunning Our Town Reveals Timeless Truths, Raw Emotions
A full moon bathes a window in sugary white. A train whistles. Bacon curls in a skillet. These simple sensory references are part of everyday life in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the United States, Western Hemisphere, the Earth, the solar system, the universe—the way one character addresses the fictional village in Thornton Wilder's 72-year-old American classic Our Town.
Yes, that old play again. Always onstage somewhere, produced so often by high school drama clubs, community playhouses and college theaters (SMU is doing it this week) that it's easy to ignore. Now Addison's WaterTower Theatre has it, but not the way you've ever seen it. This one feels fresh and immediate, buzzing with energy. The acting is raw, the staging bare-bones but almost sculpturally elegant (on a set by Clare Floyd Devries). They even dare defy the playwright's rigid rules about the paucity of props and scenery. Which is not to say they've gussied things up too much. The production, whose style seems inspired by one that ran recently at New York's Barrow Street Theatre, remains intimate, uncluttered by sticky nostalgia. It's powerfully acted by a 23-member ensemble giving open-hearted, ego-less performances.
Director Terry Martin, who also plays the narrating Stage Manager, has built his version of Our Town around little gestures—a girl's fingers curling over the hand of the boy she loves, a father offering his son a handkerchief after a stern talking-to. And to bring sharper focus to these details, WaterTower's space has been telescoped in, with seats on three sides of a smaller-than-usual thrust stage. Actors use aisles and balconies, enveloping most of the audience in the action (and with house lights up for much of the first act, everyone's visible). With all sharing the common room, actors' voices stay conversational in volume; attitudes are as ordinary and relaxed as around any kitchen table. It's as if we live in Grover's Corners, too.
Naturalism like this is Martin's forte as actor and director (he's WaterTower's artistic director). Martin studied with famed New York acting teacher Sanford Meisner and for many years has led his own classes in an acting technique grounded in finding authentic human responses—as opposed to false, emotive reactions—in the interpretation and behavior of characters. In Our Town, he is onstage or near it for the whole play, practicing what he teaches. Martin's shambling, hands-in-pockets turn as the wise but dispassionate Stage Manager may seem too casual to some (at the preview performance reviewed, he didn't get in tune with the audience until late in the second act). But at least he's avoiding the annoyingly avuncular approaches that Hal Holbrooke and Paul Newman took. No pipe, no cap, no Down East accent for Martin.
He's kept the cast on cute-check too. They certainly match Wilder's stage directions for how to play the graveyard scene: "When they speak, their tone is matter-of-fact, without sentimentality and, above all, without lugubriousness." (Good word.) Many a production is ruined by less skillful actors and tone-deaf directors who telegraph Our Town's tragic third-act turn. At WaterTower, even though you know what's coming from all those other visits to Grover's Corners, when the black umbrellas appear for the funeral procession, reach for the tissues.
Time is a funny thing in this play. It jumps forward and backward and folds in on itself. Everything is told from the omniscient view of the Stage Manager, who knows what's going to happen to whom. He describes the hamlet and its inhabitants clinically, as though reading their history from case studies. He tells us that the three acts will look at daily life, love and marriage, and death. In the first act, about 45 minutes long, he introduces the Gibbs and Webb families. We learn what the men do—Doc Gibbs (John Daniel Pszyk) has just delivered twins over in "Polish Town" and Mr. Webb (Stan Graner) edits the paper—and that there are kids the same age in each house. Mrs. Gibbs (Emily Scott Banks) dreams of seeing Paris (we know she never will). Humorless Mrs. Webb (an astutely cast Mary-Margaret Pyeatt) never stops doing chores. Her gossip session with Mrs. Gibbs is punctuated by her relentless snapping of raw green beans.
We hear hints of trouble in the life of Mr. Stimson, the tippling choirmaster (played with eyes brimming with pain by the wonderful Ted Wold). And see excitable Mrs. Soames (Nancy Sherrard) come hilariously undone.
The 35-minute second act jumps ahead a few years and belongs to Our Town's young lovers, gangly George Gibbs (Joey Folsom) and whipsmart Emily Webb (Maxey Whitehead). They grow up whispering about algebra to each other from their second-floor bedroom windows and fall in love at 16 at the drugstore soda fountain. Though they are in their 20s playing teens, Folsom and Whitehead exude unblemished innocence as George and Emily, small-town kids in the early 1900s.
What unconventionally lovely actors these two are, she with red pigtails and tiny scar on her chin, he with brooding eyes and crooked smile. It's the first part in a long time for Folsom that didn't require chain-smoking or spewing profanity (he did both impressively in Upstart Productions' subUrbia). Nice to know he's just as good—no, great—at playing a wholesome boy in the throes of puppy love. Watch him in the third act, when George is all grown up. He speaks not a word of dialogue, but it's hard to take your eyes off of him. Folsom's face always says so much.
Whitehead, who's wrestled her share of troubled teen roles at WaterTower and elsewhere, floats into the last act of Our Town with the right blend of confusion, melancholy and joy. "Good-bye, Grover's Corners...Mama and Papa," says Emily, taking her leave in the famous monologue at the end of the play. "Good-bye to clocks ticking...and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up."
That's Thornton Wilder's plainspoken American prose at its most poignant. And it's the epiphanic message of Our Town that comes through so clearly in this production. Wilder has Emily relive an ordinary day to see how people, too busy chatting about nonsense to enjoy the sound of a fresh-snapped bean, miss life's little miracles. Buddhists call it "mindful living," giving meaning to every breath, every mundane task. Bumper sticker philosophy says it more bluntly: Life is short and then you die. As the Stage Manager in the play says, "You're 20, 22 and whoosh, you're 70." Emily learns the lesson too late.
But we can be reminded of it by Martin and his cast, talking and moving as naturally as life—interrupted by one single, startling scene of hyper-realism toward the end. They create a mindful, meaningful Our Town. All those little details do matter, on that stage and in our own short stay in whatever little corner we inhabit in the United States, Western Hemisphere, the Earth, etc. Go see for yourself. And when you walk out of the theater, stop for a moment, look up at the sky and try to taste the moonlight.
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