January 26, 2022

“Another Day’s Begun” for “Our Town” at Kelsey Theatre; Shakespeare 70 Succeeds with Wilder’s Enduring Classic

“OUR TOWN”: Performances are underway for “Our Town.” Presented by Kelsey Theatre and Shakespeare 70, and directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, the play runs through January 30 at Kelsey Theatre. Above: the Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth, center) and the cast. On ladders are George (Jake Burbage, left) and Emily (Kate Augustin). (Photo courtesy of Jake Burbage)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

On January 22, 1938, Our Town premiered at McCarter Theatre. Thornton Wilder wrote to a friend that the performance, which was “sold out with standees,” was an “undoubted success.” An unimpressed Variety declared that the play would “probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent” — an ironic assessment since Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama later that year.

Eighty-four years later (almost to the day), Our Town is being presented by Shakespeare 70 at Kelsey Theatre. Directed by Jake Burbage and Frank Falisi, this smooth, deft production honors Wilder’s intentions, while subtly giving additional focus and insight to a central character.

In terms of the visual aesthetic, this Our Town generally does not stray from what audiences might expect after seeing photos of past productions. In keeping with Wilder’s request for “no scenery,” Judi Parrish (credited with “props”) furnishes the stage with simple wooden chairs, on which cast members gradually sit before the performance begins.

Although the play is set at the beginning of the 20th century, costume designer Brittany Rivera generally eschews period costumes, letting most of the cast wear casual contemporary outfits. Among the notable exceptions is the good-naturedly pedantic Professor Willard (an exuberant Ray Fallon), whose bright yellow suit matches the character’s personality.

As if to blur the lines between stage and audience, the house lights are not dimmed until the performance has been underway for several minutes. The Stage Manager (Curt Foxworth) delivers the customary pre-performance reminders about emergency exits and silencing electronic devices, then seamlessly goes on-script to give a detailed introduction of the play’s setting.

Our Town is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The first act, which “shows a day in our town” takes place on May 7, 1901.

“So — another day’s begun,” the Stage Manager remarks to the audience. Indicating the two adjacent sets of chairs, he conversationally explains that they represent the homes of the town doctor, Doc Gibbs (portrayed by Jim Bloss, who imbues the character with vociferous authority); and Mr. Webb (Fallon, in a dual role), who edits the Grover’s Corners Sentinel.

Foxworth is excellent in his role. His Stage Manager is a sturdy, reassuring presence throughout the play. He is a charming emcee, with the right combination of authoritativeness and introspection.

Foreshadowing the subject of the third act, the Stage Manager casually
mentions that the “cemetery up there on the mountain” dates to 1670. Later he adds that Doc Gibbs died in 1930, having been predeceased by Mrs. Gibbs. Immediately we realize that much of the play is a time capsule, letting us glimpse memories of something that no longer exists.

Mrs. Gibbs (Monique Beasley) tells Mrs. Webb (Angela Fasanella) about an offer she has received from a furniture dealer, which Mrs. Webb encourages her to accept. Mrs. Gibbs dreams of traveling: “Before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk English and don’t even want to.” Both Beasley and Fasanella bring the requisite mixture of maternal warmth and brusque authority.

Emily Webb (Kate Augustin, who captures the character’s subtle but palpable restlessness) proudly tells her mother about a speech she gave at school (about the Louisiana Purchase). She declares, “I’m going to make speeches all my life.” George Gibbs (portrayed with boyish charm by co-director Jake Burbage) is scolded by his father for neglecting his chores (which are completed by Mrs. Gibbs).

In one of the play’s most iconic scenes, Emily and George do their homework while perched on ladders (to indicate being on the second floor of their houses). George persuades Emily to give him hints about the answers.

The second act, “Love and Marriage,” takes place on the day of George and Emily’s wedding. There is a flashback to a time when the couple are still in high school; Emily reprimands George for his conceited attitude and single-minded focus on baseball. She instantly regrets her bluntness, but George appreciates it, and takes Emily for an ice cream soda.

They are served by Mr. Morgan, who is portrayed by the Stage Manager (who also plays the officiating minister when the action returns to the wedding). Notably, whenever the Stage Manager portrays another character, he holds a script; this will be important at the end.

At the conclusion of the act, there is an interesting deviation from the script. Wilder describes an ending in which Emily and George “descend into the auditorium and run up the aisle joyously.” In this production the scene ends with the newlyweds dancing — but as the Stage Manager looks on, Emily leaves George (who continues dancing as though she still was with him) to wander toward the back of the stage.

The moment is an interesting lead-in for the third act, in which we learn that Emily has died in childbirth, leaving George to raise their son. The directors deny the couple their full moment at the wedding, in order to offer a metaphoric glimpse of what happens to their life together.

The third act takes place in 1913, on the day of Emily’s funeral. Even before the act begins, there are noticeable differences from the beginnings of the previous acts. The house lights are dimmed right at the beginning of the act, and the pleasant light blue lighting has turned to gray. Per the stage directions, the chairs are rearranged to represent graves.

Despite the warnings of multiple dead characters (particularly Mrs Gibbs), Emily chooses to revisit Earth for one day, to relive her 12th birthday. The experience is painful, because her parents cannot see her — though her eyes happen to meet Mrs. Webb’s for a fleeting moment, before the latter turns away.

Alec Skwara’s lighting heightens the raw emotion of the moment. A spotlight focuses our attention on a poignant tableau: Mr. and Mrs. Webb gazing fondly at the younger Emily (Emma Sava), who is seated securely between them, while the dead Emily can only watch — an outsider who is no longer entitled to her own experiences.

Emily realizes that people fail to treasure the simplest moments of their lives while they have them. The Stage Manager replies, “Saints and poets maybe … they do some.” At the play’s end the directors give Emily a subtle but powerful bit of staging that suggests that the insight she has gained sets her apart from the other characters.

The cast is ably rounded out by Nicholas La Russa (who plays Wally, Emily’s brother); Madison Russell (Rebecca Webb and Sam Craig); Juan Carlos Gonzales-Najera (Simon Stimson, the abrasive choir director who has a troublesome habit that is a subject of gossip); Lyndsey Rose Harper (the opinionated Mrs. Soames); Michael Gilbert (Constable Warren); and Sean Barton (newspaper delivery boys Joe and Si Crowell).

Our Town explores much about the human condition. As the Stage Manager encapsulates, “This is the way we were: our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” On first reading or viewing it is easy to miss the forest for the (many compelling) trees, though increased familiarity with the play reveals  numerous segments that anchor the play and prepare the audience for the third act.

Beside some talented performances, what makes this production succeed is that it highlights those guideposts. Just as Wilder’s script is by turns joyous and somber, the production’s creative team balances fidelity to the script with the freedom to highlight its inherent themes by adding fresh insights of their own. The Stage Manger observes, “The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn’t it?” It is worth seeing this Our Town before it has to go.

Our Town will play at the Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, through January 30. COVID-19 precautions necessitate proof of vaccination, and the wearing of masks. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 570-3333.