‘Our Town’ Pares Life Down to its Essence

Posted in Feature, Spotlight, Theater and Dance

Sidebar-OurTown-thinBY BETTY FREEMAN
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
May 28, 2014

No curtain.

No scenery.

The audience arriving sees an empty stage in half-light.

Presently the Stage Manager, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters and begins placing a table and three chairs downstage left and a table and three chairs downstage right. As the house lights go down he has finished setting the stage and leans against the right proscenium pillar watching late arrivals in the audience. When the auditorium is in complete darkness he speaks:

“This play is called ‘Our Town.’”

Whidbey Island Center for the Arts presents Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” as the finale to the 2013-14 season. Opening on Friday, June 6, the play will run for three weekends, through June 21, on WICA’s Michael Nutt Mainstage.

Jim Scullin As "Stage Manager"  (photo courtesy of WICA)

Jim Scullin As “Stage Manager” (photo courtesy of WICA)

This simple drama of daily life in the mythical village of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire is Thornton Wilder’s most frequently performed play. “Our Town” first appeared on Broadway in 1938 to wide acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize.

“Our Town” explores daily life in Grover’s Corners and, in particular, the relationship between two young neighbors—George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whose friendship blossoms into romance and culminates in marriage. The circle of life portrayed in the three acts of “Our Town”—growing up, adulthood and death—is fully realized.

Thornton Wilder wrote “Our Town” in a “metatheatrical” style, in which the play’s Stage Manager (and narrator) has a relationship with the audience, breaking the fourth wall and giving him artistic license to address them directly.

Wilder’s other break from theatrical tradition was to insist that the play be done without scenery and props. The characters mime their actions, and the set is sparsely furnished with a few chairs, tables, and ladders to suggest upper floors.

Wilder wanted the words to carry the play, not the sets and props.

Rehearsal (photo by Betty Freeman)

Rehearsal (photo by Betty Freeman)

Just as the audience willingly suspends disbelief when the Stage Manager joins the action and then withdraws from it, so they can imagine the clink of milk bottles placed on a front porch, peas being snapped into bowls on ample laps, the weight of schoolbooks held by a strap, or the creak of a front gate being shut.

“The lack of props forces the audience to listen to the words,” said Tim Rarick, director of WICA’s production of “Our Town.”

The play is full of memorable, timeless lines that resonate with audience members of all ages and hold different meanings for each person experiencing it.

“Edward Albee said ‘Our Town’ is probably the best American play ever written,” said Shelley Hartle, who plays Mrs. Soames and is also the play’s music director.

WICA’s production of “Our Town” meshes seasoned local actors with newcomers and creates its own supportive community within the play. “We’re bringing young and old together and speaking to the universal human experience,” Rarick said.

Rehearsal (photo by Kathryn Morgen, courtesy of WICA)

Rehearsal (photo by Kathryn Morgen, courtesy of WICA)

Rarick last directed “Our Town” 25 years ago at North Idaho College where he headed the theatre department.

“Now, coming back to it in this production, the play is richer for me,” said Rarick. “I’ve lost my parents, and have grandchildren, so its truths are filtered through my own life experiences. This play asks the audience to bring what they know to the performance.”

Some of the actors in WICA’s production are coming to an appreciation of “Our Town” for the first time.

“There are 25 people in the play, and we were surprised that it was new to so many of them,” said Rarick.

Jim Scullin, who plays the Stage Manager, had never read or seen the play before. He feels that’s actually an asset to making it a fresh experience for others too.

“I’m looking forward to engaging with the audience as the Stage Manager,” said Scullin. “I have so much regard for our community that it’s not daunting to recognize people I know in the audience.”

Nancy Pfeiffer, who plays Julia Gibbs, acknowledges that the play is physically demanding because of the lack of props and the imperative to mime the action.

“I have to create the spaces in my own imagination—the kitchen stove, or a mixing bowl and spoon—and find authenticity so I can share it with others,” said Pfeiffer. “Simple acting is the hardest acting to do, looking always for the essence of the character.”

As we watch the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners attend to daily life—going to work and school, eating meals together, doing homework, chopping wood, attending choir practice—the “layers and layers of nonsense” that Our Town’s Stage Manager alludes to when he speaks of the human race are stripped away and the essence of life in all its wonder is revealed.

“Our Town” plays weekends June 6-21 on WICA’s Michael Nutt Mainstage. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m.

Tickets are available at wicaonline.org, at the box office at 565 Camano Ave. in Langley, (open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 1-6 p.m.) or by phone: 800-638-7631 or 360-221-8268.

Image at top: section from “Our Town” poster (designed by Kathryn Morgen, constructed by Susan Reed)

Betty Freeman is an award-winning writer and editor who frequently writes about the arts for Whidbey Island publications. She lives in Clinton with her husband Dan, a sculptor.

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