Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Steve Stettler. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Christopher Lloyd as the Stage Manager addresses Simon Stimson (Michael Hicks), Mrs. Gibbs (Brandy Zarle) and others in the cemetery; photo: Hubert Schreibl
"To move about in a cloud of ignorance."
The most produced play written by an American has to be Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Professional companies, community theater groups, high schools and play-reading clubs have done it without exception. In addition to its overhwlming popularity it has always been my least favorite play. This is the second production I have seen in the past two months. Its universality cannot be denied; even I cry at the appropriate moments. I just don't care for the style of the piece.
These last two productions have moved me greatly, so I have come to believe that the problem with the play isn't the play, it's with me. The current edition at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont has a great deal to offer and I am glad to say that few people would ever disagree with my sense of what is special, with what makes the play work this time around. It is the actors in the show who have done the work, under the astute direction of Steve Stettler, of making the people real and not acted.
The two mothers, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibb, are prime examples of what I mean. Christine Toy Johnson and Brandy Zarle never appear to be acting. They feel like flesh and blood human beings, real people overseen in their homes, in their situations. Of course, they ARE acting, but they sound and look like the people they're playing. There is no artifice in their work. In the third act Zarle's Mother Gibb is the most gentle and honest woman, in control of her own little world, of her precious space, and her experiences in her situation are natural, realistic and so normal.
Much the same can be said for Dorothy Stanley's "dead woman" and Michael Hicks "Simon Stinson." Both gave me chills whenever they spoke. And again, there was a simple honesty to their work.
As the youngsters George and Emily this production can boast of Vichet Chum and Julie Benko. Both present their characters with a simplicity that works well for this play. Chum has the difficult, silent finale when death removes George's motivation and he has only the physical reaction to play. Benko has the lines that move us, moved me certainly, but Chum was not her equal in that moment. His challenge is greater and he answers it with technique rather than with honest humanity, but this is the most difficult moment in the play and no one can be faulted for not bringing it to its most honest and human possibility. It is just that here he moves from real to acting.
Acting is the problem for me in this play; it always is. The Stage Manager, the narrator of the piece, has the greatest challenge of all. He sets the tone, the style, the degree of reality that others need to follow or play against. Christopher Lloyd falls partially into the acting end of the emotional see-saw that Wilder uses in this play. A balanced teeter-totter is so very difficult, and this company comes so very close to keeping it level, but Lloyd tends to overweight the acting end and so the play dips into that realm that I dislike: I can hear him acting. He takes others with him and the show falls into its usual attitude: the play, not the people in the place, just the play about them.
No one is at fault except possibly the author. He has written three slices of life which need to feel like life and not its representation. It is rare for so many challenges to be met with such a universal reaction, and this company comes so very close to achieving what so few ever have, at least in my years of seeing this play. My previous experience of the play came so much closer to what I believe makes the play work; in fact it was the first time I could say I enjoyed the work and understood what it was meant to be. This one is such a close call and I am so impressed with the accomplishment.
I must congratulate the sound designer/composer Daniel Kluger for enhancing the work with excellent underscore. Likewise the work of Jiyoun Chang in lighting the play and enhancing each scene with a visual correctness. Director Steve Stettler's vision of the play is clean and clear and his staging, even with the obligatory mimed moments that can take away its reality, was superbly wrought. This is a play of which to be proud for so much of it shows the talented vision of the director.
If this is your first time seeing "Our Town" it will be a good one, a fine look at one of the most significant theatrical achievements of a writer whose talent at insight into the human spirit is rarely equaled. Try to forgive the acting and listen to the humanity instead. It cannot fail to move you.
Christopher Lloyd; photo: Hubert Schreibl
Christopher Lloyd presides at the wedding of Emily Webb (Julie Benko) and George Gibbs (Vichet Chum); photo: Hubert Schreibl
Our Town plays at the Weston Playhouse, Main Street, Weston, VT through July 7. For information and tickets go to their website at westonplayhouse.org or call the box office at 802-824-5288.