Review: Our Town by Zach Theatre
by Michael Meigs
Our Town is both their town -- Thornton Wilder's Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, 1904 - 1913 -- and our town, Austin in 2010.
Dave Steakley and the large, talented cast at the Zach have a good time with the clever palimpsest of modern Austin that they use to reinvigorate a text that many of us first read in high school. It works, too, at least most of the time. This styling reminds us gently, insistently and with a smile, much like Wilder's Stage Manager narrator and chorus, that although the play refers to a specific time, place and culture, it's really about the eternally repeating experience of mankind. Those ancients and ancestors, of the Sumerians and other vanished cultures including our immediate forefathers and foremothers, went through these experiences or something very much like them. Family, growing up, courtship and marriage, the end of life and the passage to something eternal.
Wilder's innovation, in a time of earnest realism in the theatre, box sets and meticulously furnished onstage drawing rooms, was to sweep the stage bare. He was unapologetic about that. The Stage Manager describes for us the layout of the town -- the churches, the shops, the livery stable, the Cartwrights' mansion on the hill, the Gibbs house and that of the Webbs. All are invisible. "And here," says he, "is a tree, for those who must have some scenery." He allowed characters and stagehands to carry on some chairs and a table, but the rest of Grover's Corners existed in the mind's eye.
Dave Steakley mostly respects that approach and enjoys the liberty it gives him as a director. Jason Amato's subtle, lustrous and haunting lighting dresses this stage, more than anything else, and every moment at the Kleberg stage is visually memorable.
Our stage manager Jaston Williams is affable and relaxed in an Austin kind of way, and you won't see him cross-dressing Greater Tuna style. He does have fun doing an indignant old lady along Main Street, and garrulous Mr. Morgan at the drugstore, serving up strawberry ice cream sodas and soothing the upset Emily Webb with inconsequential talk. For much of the play, Williams simply sits and listens, as we do, giving the courtesy of attention to the small things of the lives of ordinary people. His thoughtful performance, marked from time to time with a toothy, confiding grin, is thoroughly winning.
In case your high school textbooks have gone from your memory, along with algebra and Cicero's orations if you studied them, Our Town looks at two families, those of Dr. Gibbs and his wife Julia and of newspaper editor Webb and his wife Myrtle. They live in houses alongside one another with gardens substantially the same, except that Mrs. Webb has more heliotrope. Two children each, boy & girl, girl & boy, and those children are growing up in a simpler world than our own.
Young George the baseball player and class president is inevitably attracted to Emily Webb, the bright girl next door, class secretary and treasurer. Act Two shows us the households' preparation on wedding day, then moves back in time to illuminate, literally, their courtship, and winds up with their wedding. The stage manager officiates there as the pastor who marries them, confiding to us in an early aside, "I've married more than 200 couples in my day . . . . once in a thousand times it's interesting." The final act is set in a dark cemetery where we recognize various of the townspeople, waiting patiently for something, something great, something eternal, and accepting the arrival of a newcomer.
The Austin touches and the anachronisms are light and amusing. Young Wally Webb wears a burnt orange UT baseball cap and jersey as he gobbles his breakfast before bolting off to school. Milkman Mr. Hershey arrives wearing a bicycle helmet and steering a delivery tricycle, talking to it as if it were, indeed, his 17-year-old horse Bessie. The first act finale provides us with the instantly recognizable crooning voice of Willy Nelson as the lights fade away.
The Zach has made much of the director's decision to move the audience in Act II from the Kleberg to a hall & rehearsal space for the wedding of George and Emily. Ushers and cast stand along the way, marking our perambulation a hundred yards or so down a back alley to Toomey Street and around a corner into a space with raised central stage and rows of folding chairs. We become the assembly for the wedding.
Steakley takes a risk at this point in the staging, and you'll have to judge the result for yourself. As it happened, I attended Our Town twice on opening weekend: for opening night at the invitation of the company, and for the first Sunday afternoon performance, accompanying a group of Episcopal parishoners from the neighborhood. The Saturday evening audience was full, keyed up with maybe a first-intermission drink, and adventurous, eager to embrace Zach's playful interpretation; the Sunday afternoon audience trekked a barren alley in the daylight, filled only 2/3 of the hall, and appeared a bit disoriented by the change.
By moving the audience and by amplifying the story with a chatty wedding singer, the cutting of the cake, and post-wedding ritual such as the bride's dance with her father, the groom's dance with his mother, Steakley extends Wilder's delicately limited scene into a kind of Mama Mia! celebration. It is nice to be served a slice of tasty wedding cake and to mingle with actors in character, but this approach blows the scene wide open.
Wilder's story is written not of the theatricality of the wedding ceremony, but rather of the moments of private alarm of bride and groom before they take that breath taking jump into the next stage of their lives. Once that panic is quelled, the wedding ceremony itself is largely mimed, and we hear the private thoughts and anguish of Emily's mother (Barbara Chisholm, voicing them on opening night directly before her own teenage daughter Rosalind, in the audience). And there's the emotional braying of Mrs. Soames (Lana Dieterich) in the audience, far more wrapped up in her own Harlequin-romances emotions than in the reality of the young persons in front of her.
Each of those moments is beautifully performed, but in the relatively harsh lighting of the hall and in the conspicuous presence of the rank-and-file of the audience, they lose their intimacy and move closer to comedy. The post-wedding celebration/charade is not well delimited, and the audience is left to time its own departure and wander back to the Kleberg. There, a somber and deeply evocative tableau awaits them once the house doors are eventually opened to them.
The casting is excellent, even to the smallest roles. Jordan McRae's performance as Emily is vivid, attractive, emotional and, ultimately, deeply moving. Michael Amendola as boy-next-door George Gibbs has the cheery unselfconsciousness of the adolescent and young beau, and with his open, guileless face he does some wildly comic stares and doubletakes. Harvey Guion is the amiable Dr. Gibbs, pained by his son's thoughtlessness and later devastated by the loss of loved ones, while Marco Perella as editor Webb portrays a tolerant, accepting and quizzical dad and citizen. Janelle Buchanan and Barbara Chisholm are moms and mothers, both, focused, disciplining and deeply attached to spouses and children.
Special praise goes to Billy Harden as the pained, alcoholic choirmaster Simon Stimson, a quiet looming portrait of human despair; his slow, steady crossing of the stage in the face of editor Webb's efforts at bonhomie is a brilliant passage of silent communication.
After the Saturday opening night, the satisfied crowd surged into the terrace reception area, full of talk and congratulation, where they enthusiastically applauded the young couple voted favorites to have their own wedding staged at the Zach and officiated by Austin writer, blogger and personality Spike Gillespie. After the Sunday conclusion, a number of those who had lived the finale in the graveyard under the wild stars left the theatre with tears in their eyes.
Our Town invites us to celebrate, to grieve and to hope at the human condition. Something for everyone, every time and every place. The Zach production is a must see.
Hits as of 2015 03 01: 4337
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704