Our Town is a striking success

by Matthew Falduto

City Circle – A reviewer of the original New York production called Our Town a “hauntingly beautiful play.” Seventy four years later, if the tears standing in my eleven year old daughter’s eyes are any indication, those words still apply. Our Town, in the hands of the talented theatre artists at City Circle, is a striking success.

Thorton Wilder’s Our Town is a classic of the American theatre, perhaps the finest work ever created between California and the New York Island. It tells the story of two families: the Gibbs’ and the Webb’s. The focus is mostly on George and Emily, the teenagers who grow up side by side, fall in love, and marry. There is a feeling among some that the play is dated – that the small town world depicted in the play doesn’t really exist anymore in the modern world of the internet, smart phones, and tablet computers. And that’s probably true – towns like Grover’s Corners don’t really exist anymore. We don’t have a milkman delivering our milk every morning. Things have changed. But that’s just the setting of Our Town. The meaning of the play, that every minute of our lives matters, still resonates as strongly, perhaps even more strongly now. City Circle’s company of artists has created a show with skillful acting, direction, and design that sends that message into your heart.

There are many wonderful performances in this show. Doc Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs are played perfectly by Kenneth Van Egdon and Mary Sullivan. Sullivan in particular understands the need to portray a woman who is full of that restrained love we Midwesterners know so well. Of course, we love our children, but we don’t have to make a big deal about it. Her naturalistic delivery of Wilder’s words is effortless; only the best actors make you forget you’re hearing lines written on a page. Van Egdon does an excellent job with less material. In particular, he nails the scene where he guilts his son, George (Samuel E. White), into cutting the firewood.

Steve Rosse as the Stage Manager was an able narrator for the show, though aside from his delivery of one crucial word at the end of the show, he did not provide that bridge into the underlying emotions of the residents of Grover’s Corners. The Stage Manager character provides a window into the subtext of the show and from this viewer’s perspective Rosse never quite pulled that off.

Patrick DuLaney and Robyn Calhoun play Mr. and Mrs. Webb, parents of the main character of the show, Emily (Sage Behr). DuLaney delivers a strong performance, as usual, once again using perfect timing and his always expressive face to get at
what’s beneath the surface of Wilder’s words. Calhoun is also excellent, though I did find her short hair distracting as the style was very modern. That brings me to a minor criticism of the show. There was a bit of a push and pull in the costumes of the show. Some seemed to be close to period or a reasonable facsimile thereof whereas others were very current. I could have gotten on board with modern dress (and hairstyles) if it had been consistent but some of the characters’ clothes seemed to be an attempt to place us in that time period, so I was little confused. Still, that was a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent production.

White and Behr are quite good as George and Emily, the teenagers who fall in love and marry through the course of the play. They did an excellent job in the iconic soda shop scene. Behr, who has the more challenging role, ably moved from self conscious teen to scared bride-to-be. She also perfectly conveyed the painful understanding that Emily experiences at the end of the play.

The actors in the smaller roles are also excellent. Jesse Jensen as town drunk and choir director Simon Stimpson is downright scary. It’s a powerful performance by an actor who deserves some leading roles. I also enjoyed Andrew Mehegan’s performance as Howie Newsome, the milkman. I absolutely believed he was leading his horse down the aisles and in front of the stage as he delivered the milk to the residents of Grover’s Corners. I noticed that Dawn Clark is credited as the Mime Coach. It’s clear she’s a great coach as the actors did a fine job miming many of the actions in show.

I have to give kudos to director Chris Okiishi for excellent use of the space. As noted, actors entered through the audience and some scenes were set in front of the stage. Putting the choir rehearsal up in one of the side balconies worked very well. All in all, Okiishi utilized the space very well, which was important when working with a play that calls for no scenery. The only ‘set’ were tables and chairs. It’s part of the beauty of the play, but there is always the risk that an audience that is used to seeing a big extravaganza on stage will feel let down. Fortunately, Okiishi’s clever staging kept the audience engaged. There is also an incredibly powerful moment at the end of the play with a procession of black umbrellas. It was beautifully designed for maximum impact.

I cannot end the review without mentioning the sound effects. From a straw slurp to morning birds and rain, the sound effects were very well done. Sound designer Andrew Stewart did a great job.

Our Town uses three brisk acts to show us that whether our home is a small town in 1901 or a college town in 2012, our lives are the same – we live, we love, and we die. A character says achingly at the end of the play, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” The wonderfully curt answer is “No.” While a caveat follows that ‘no,’ the point resonates. If you need a reminder that life is an amazing gift, I encourage you to see Our Town. City Circle has created a powerful show.

Our Town runs through April 1st, 7:30pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00pm Sundays, at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.

Photos by ICPixx.

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