Sunday, September 15, 2013

OUR TOWN • Insight Theatre Company

Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning drama about the lives, loves and deaths in Grover's Corners has been around since 1938, and Insight Theatre is celebrating the play's 75th anniversary with a marvelous staging.  Whether you've seen it before or not, this production is worth a look.

The three acts of "Our Town", titled Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Eternity, detail the ordinary activities of residents living in a small New Hampshire town between 1901 and 1913.  The Stage Manager (Joneal Joplin) serves as our genial host for the evening, and addressing us directly, tells us about the play, the director and the cast we'll be seeing.  Then he gives us the lay of the land of Grover's Corners on a typical day at dawn.  While he identifies the schools, churches and grocery stores, cast members are chalking out an illustration of the town against a black surface at the back of the stage.  (A very cool touch from the director, but I'll get to that in a minute.)  We soon come to meet neighboring families -- the Webb family and the Gibbs family, in the midst of their daily routines.

Jack Dryden (George Gibbs) and Taylor Pietz (Emily Webb).
Photo credit: John Lamb
While Mrs. Gibbs (Peggy Billo) calls her kids, Rebecca (Lily Orchard) and George (Jack Dryden), down to breakfast, Mrs. Webb (Amy Loui) does the same with her kids, Wally (Charlie B. Southern) and Emily (Taylor Pietz).  We also meet Simon Stinson (Michael Brightman), the church choir director and town drunk, Professor Willard (Paul Balfe) shares some geological tidbits about the area, and we see the budding romance between Emily Webb and the neighbor boy, George.  Mr. Webb (Alan Knoll), the local newspaper editor, tells us that Grover's Corners isn't the most cultural town, but the young folks seem to return to settle down.  The Stage Manager injects from time to time, and tells us about the futures of the younger residents, and how others will die.

Taylor Pietz (Emily Webb),
Joneal Joplin (Stage Manager)
and Jack Dryden (George Gibbs).
Photo credit: John Lamb
The second act, three years later, focuses on the relationship between George and Emily and their eventual marriage.  We get a flashback of the couple when they fall in love, courtesy of our Stage Manager, and the rest of the act plays out with more milk deliveries, father-in-law talks, and wedding day jitters.

The Stage Manager shows us the town cemetery and its more recent graves at the top of act three.  This act takes place nine years later, and some of those whom we've met now sit together in rows of chairs.  After the others are joined by a new resident on the hilltop, there is a sobering realization about the wondrous nature of the unappreciated moments in life -- a lesson briefly recognized by those on the hilltop, while the living remain painfully unaware.

The cast is solid throughout, and includes many St. Louis veterans.  Joplin is as comfortable and easy as a rocking chair as the Stage Manager, guiding us through the evening with understated charm.  Additional cast members, including Billo and Loui as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, John Contini as Doc Gibbs, and Knoll's Mr. Webb, were all brought to life with home-spun finesse.  Pietz, usually seen in musicals, does excellent work here as Emily.  She makes the transition from school girl to nervous young bride smoothly and contributes to the final act with heartbreaking credibility.  Dryden does great work as George Webb, from an energetic young boy to his sweet courtship and his earnest intentions as a young groom -- ringing true with small town appeal.  There was strong support from Brightman as the troubled Simon Stinson, Balfe as Professor Willard, Donna Weinsting's gossipy and emotional Mrs. Soames and Eric Dean White as Constable Warren.  Under Tom Martin's wonderful direction, along with the rest of the ensemble and commendable performances by the kids, the cast members paint a nostalgic portrait of Americana.  Cherol Bowman Thibaut was responsible for the lovely costumes, and Mark Wilson provides the striking lighting design, as well as scenic design.

Joneal Joplin (Stage Manager).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Martin's production is also made special by the way he treated some elements of the play.  According to what I've read, Thornton Wilder specified in the script that the play should be performed with little scenery, no set and minimal props, with the characters miming their interactions with the objects they come in contact with -- all effectively engaging the imagination of the audience.  These traditional elements remain, but Martin has steeped the play in theatricality by having the cast members provide the sound effects for doors, milk bottles and thunder with props -- all while standing downstage right and left.  While stringing beans, the actors snap their fingers during their pantomime.  Actors provide the clucking of yard chickens as they are fed by Mrs. Gibbs.  Along with the chalk illustrations and titles written by the cast, these clever additions heighten the intimacy of the play.

Ahead of its time, obliterating the fourth wall and never letting us forget that we are watching a play, this classic takes idealized memories of a time when the milk was still delivered and automobiles were rare, and sets it against a universal reminder about the marvelously mundane, and the brevity of life, with charm and gravity.  I would go ahead and get a ticket if I were you.  It's playing until the 29th.


Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Tom Martin
Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Ave.
through September 29 | tickets: $25 - $30
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Joneal Joplin* (Stage Manager), John Contini* (Dr. Gibbs), Peggy Billo* (Mrs. Gibbs), Alan Knoll* (Mr. Webb), Amy Loui* (Mrs. Webb), Jack Dryden (George Gibbs), Taylor Pietz (Emily Webb), Charlie B. Southern (Wally Webb) and Lily Orchard (Rebecca Gibbs), Joe Kercher (Joe Crowell), Robert Thibaut (Howie Newsome), Paul Balfe (Professor Willard), Caroline Kwan (Woman in balcony), Louisa Wimmer Brown (Lady in the box), Michael Brightman (Simon Stinson), Donna Weinsting (Mrs. Soames), Eric Dean White (Constable Warren), Braden Phillips (Si Crowell), Austin Pierce (Sam Craig) and Tom Wethington (Joe Stoddard).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic, lighting and technical design by Mark Wilson; costume design by Cherol Bowman Thibaut; sound design by Victoria Meyer; musical direction by Charlie Mueller; properties by Jim Ryan; stage manager, Sarah Johnson.

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