By selecting Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 drama “Our Town” for his inaugural production as artistic director, Maxwell Williams makes a strong statement: His tenure as leader of Le Petit Theatre will focus on the acting.
Performed on a bare stage with no props, Wilder strips away all theatrical artifice, vividly spotlighting the simple lives and gentle souls of the all-too-human beings of Grover’s Corners.
“We all know that something is eternal,” says “Our Town” Stage Manager (Carol Sutton) in a beautifully honest moment. “And that something has to do with human beings. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Every theater-goer has visited Grover’s Corners at least once or twice. Returning to Wilder’s mythical, quintessential American small town is like reuniting with almost forgotten old friends — there’s folksy milkman Howie Newsome (L. Jeffrey Martorell), tipsy choir conductor Simon Stimson (Leon Contavesprie) and rebellious little sister Rebecca (Emma Fagin) — all newly recalled.
“Try to remember what it was like to have been very young. And particularly the days when you were first in love,” instructs Sutton. And instantly we do.
The first two acts center primarily on the friendship, romance, and wedding of Emily (Sara Minerd), daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Silas Cooper and Ann Dalrymple), and next-door neighbor George (Greg Chandler Maness), son of local newspaper Editor Mr. Webb (James Howard Wright) and his wife (Michelle Benet Martin).
“This is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our doctoring and in our living and in our dying,” says Sutton in another moment of poignancy.
Despite some odd costume choices and some vocal lapses, Williams directs his large cast with simplicity and ease, fulfilling Wilder’s stated intention “to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.”
Williams understands Wilder’s fundamental belief that the theater is not a diversion from reality, but a path to engaging life more completely.
Wilder delights in breaking down the “fourth wall,” the invisible barrier separating the actors from the audience. The Stage Manager speaks directly to us, as if she is at once a character in the play and, at the same time, a real person commenting on the action. Furthermore, seeming audience members ask questions and make announcements.
Such audience mind games create a distinct challenge for the performers. At times, they need to be so conversationally real, so unaffected, and so behaviorally authentic that they appear to be, well, not acting at all. Over the run, Williams’ actors will surely free themselves from moments that feel overly studied.
Overall, the performances are relaxed and modest. Strong work from Dalrymple and Benet Martin as the two dignified mothers passionately holding their families together. Although he downplays his character’s initial arrogance, Maness’ sincere George pleases, as does Cooper’s professional turn as Dr. Gibbs and Contavesprie’s lively choir master.
Ultimately, however, Sutton’s intrinsic dignity and Minerd’s fragile grace command the show.
It’s the silently shattering third act graveyard scene, where the dead and living share the stage, that “Our Town” claims its timeless and renowned status as one of the great plays of the American stage.
As the newly deceased Emily, Minerd saves her best work for this most difficult of scenes.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” asks Emily as the Stage Manager takes her back to one day in her brief life.
“Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough,” states the Stage Manager.
In her return to her 12th birthday, Minerd, Williams and the rest create a tone that is somehow at once tragic and uplifting. Highlighting Wilder’s premise that the ordinary events in life are indeed the most cherished parts, Le Petit Theatre’s homespun production ends with a note of quiet beauty and unforced worthiness.
Bruce Burgun is a retired professor of theater from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.