Our Town: Theatre Woodstock does justice to Pulitzer Prize winner

 

Our Town
By Thornton Wilder
Produced with permission of Samuel French
Theatre Woodstock
Directed by Terry Todd
Produced by Sally Johnston and Diane Haggarty
November 30, December 1, 2, 6, 7 and 8
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes
Tickets available at Highlander Studios, 654 Dundas Street or call the box office:

While Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town may seem almost the antithesis of the kind of computer-generated imagery the Twitter™ generation has been raised on, the three-act play written in 1937 remains a classic three quarters of a century later.

Over those more than seven decades, it has been frequently staged by professional and amateur theatrical companies throughout North America and filmed on a number of occasions, most notably the 1940 film with a 22-year-old William Holden and a bizarre Hollywood-style happy ending tacked on.

Presumably the film’s dream epilogue was to assure feel-good audiences of the day that the author surely intended to show that life in the archetypal fictitious town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire was what it was appeared to be superficially, with nary a sign of trouble to be found. That is to say, you are born, grow up, get married, die but things rarely change.

 

Happily an excellent Theatre Woodstock cast, under the watchful eye of director Terry Todd, has stuck to the author’s original text, giving local audiences a thoroughly entertaining and insightful look at a somewhat unconventional work, one almost bereft of scenery and props, with the exception of tables, chairs, ladder and a few scattered items.

The town folk eat food no-one sees with imaginary utensils and when the milkman makes his daily rounds; his trusted horse is only in the mind’s eye.

What Todd and his very talented troupe succeed in doing is to force the audience to focus on characters and the work’s layers of themes, which is exactly what Wilder intended when he wrote the play in his early 30s. While the plotline, particularly in the opening two acts, may appear to be the normalcy of one community, Our Town offers considerably more, beneath the surface.

The Theatre Woodstock company does an admirable job of adhering to the author’s wishes. The acting – from the leads to the minor characters – is uniformly excellent. The direction is crisp, and well-paced, allowing the audience to get a proper look at the residents. And the impact of the solemn yet emotion-packed final act is still chilling and staged very effectively.

From a 1930s vantage point, the play looks back at a time from 1901 to 1913 at a pleasant unassuming little town that, while it appears to be separated from the rest of the world, at the same time is a very real part of the global community, in large part because of those aspects of life that affect everyone anywhere – the aforementioned birth, growth, marriage and ultimately death.

One of the play’s genuine delights is the stage narrator, played here with generous helpings of wit, wisdom and sly observations from veteran actor Tony Harding. While he evokes the sensory feel of the community, he also introduces the play and even acts as a stage hand in the opening sequence, putting into place the chairs and tables the main characters soon use.

The manager provides a comic contrast to Professor Willard, played nicely as the proverbial long-winded academic by Timothy Lewis, who prattles on with a boring speech about the geological and anthropological facts associated with Grover's Corners thousands of years ago. Harding’s character, on the other hand, has a direct and more meaningful link to the audience. In his narrative duties, he could even be seen as a homespun version of those grand choruses associated with classic Greek plays.

The first two acts – The Daily Life and Love and Marriage – are self-explanatory, both in subject matter and the manner in which the townsfolk are introduced but the third, focusing on Death and Eternity, is where one finds the ultimate pay-off, in terms of Wilder’s exploration of life, symbolically and  thematically looking at and beyond the day-to-day sameness.

In a cast that boasts so many fine performers, it seems a tad unfair to single out individuals but, in addition to Harding’s ever-present stage manager, there are several quality actors worthy of mention: Tracy Biggar as the doting Mrs. Gibbs; Al Leitch as her hard-working husband Dr. Gibbs; Tracey Price as the thoughtful young Emily Webb, the romantic object of George Gibbs’ (David Harding) eye and Peter Johnson and Paula Baasner, Emily’s parents.

Many of the actors do double duty, tackling more than one role without missing a step.

Although it’s almost inconceivable to imagine there are those who have yet to see Our Town at some point, there is always the potential of a misguided reviewer injecting the dreaded spoiler alert, in an attempt to explain the marvelous structure of the thought-provoking last act.

That will not happen here.

The most moving line of the play may come from Emily when she asked the manager whether anyone realizes life while they live it, to which he responds, "No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some."

The Woodstock production richly deserves ****out of four stars with not a cell phone, laptop nor any hint of technological wizardry in sight on stage.

Geoff Dale is an Oxford County theatre reviewer and freelance writer/photographer.

Photo:  from left, Tracy Biggar as Mrs. Gibbs;  Al Leitch in the role of Doc Gibbs; Hunter Seridiak playing Wally Webb; Tracey Price as Emily Webb and Peter Johnson in the role of Charles Webb. Photo by Ted McLauchlin, Highlander Studios


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