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Monday, 16 September 2013 20:56

'Our Town' at Insight: You CAN go home again!

Written by Steve Callahan
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'Our Town' at Insight: You CAN go home again! / John Lamb

Over the past seventy-five years the little town of Grover’s Corners has come to life at least once on every stage in America.  This village is the subject of Thornton Wilder’s wonderful play, "Our Town," which Insight Theatre is now presenting in quite an excellent production.  

Technically the play is utterly minimalist;  Wilder calls for no set, no props, just two tables, some chairs, and a couple of ladders.   This aspect, of course, makes the play immediately attractive to any school or small theatre group with a limited budget.   But it is this sparse technical framework that allows the play’s greatness of heart to move us so deeply.   It is the people who are important, not the houses.   Our imaginations willingly fill in the omitted physical details from our memories or our myths, and thus we make the play our own.   This is a very, very important play in the history of American theatre, and its stylistic influence has been enormous.  I commend Insight for bringing it to us again, and I encourage all of you to see it.

"Our Town" begins in 1901.  Nobody in Grover’s Corners ever locks their doors.   Only an occasional automobile appears on the streets to disturb the horses.  The town has one doctor.  The newspaper comes out twice a week.    The Stage Manager serves as narrator and introduces us to the town and its people.  We meet two middle-class families—the Gibbses and the Webbs.  Wilder invests the myriad tiny, mundane domestic details with such humanity and love.  We watch as young George and Emily grow up, fall in love, and marry.    We share the troubles, the joy, the grief of these people as they participate in life’s eternal cycles.  "Our Town" is a rapturous celebration of life in all its tiny details.   The final scene in the graveyard, where the calm and patient dead observe the restless living is magnificent in its simplicity, and it’s the reason why you should never attend this play without a hanky.

The Stage Manager tells the story with a gentle, caring wisdom—and not without glimmers of humor.  Joneal Joplin's long career seems to have been a trajectory aimed at this particular role, for such attributes are Jop's natural gifts and he is so at home here.     He leads something of an all-star cast.  Young George and Emily are played with winning innocence by Jack Dryden and Taylor Pietz.  Their parents are given very strong performances by John Contini, Alan Knoll, Peggy Billo and Amy Loui.  Ms. Loui in particular brings utter honest reality to her role—as is her custom.

I'm sure that little carrot-topped Lily Orchard is already tired of being called adorable—but what can one say?  As George's keenly curious kid sister she's a delight.

Simon Stinson, the church organist, has a drinking problem, but the town gently forgives him this because "Simon's had a peck of troubles."  Michael Brightman's performance in this role again convinces me that he's one of the best actors in town.  What lovely restrained pain and bitterness.

Music, under the direction of Charlie Mueller, is a very strong aspect of this production.  At times the entire cast becomes a church choir, adding gorgeous gentle a capella support to the drama.   Live old-fashioned sound-effects are an appropriate touch, giving us the passing train, thunder, the closing of imagined doors, and so on (but they were perhaps a bit too detailed;  we don't really need to hear every single cup touching a table).

Mark Wilson's scenery and lighting adhere to the simplicity for which Thornton Wilder calls.  In addition the entire back wall serves as a giant black-board where the cast draws the churches, the bank, the Town Hall, the cemetery as the Stage Manager points them out.   All very simple and graceful.

TheHeagney Theatre in Nerinx Hall is a very typical large high-school auditorium—and frankly the acoustics are a little cruel.  "Our Town" deserves a warmer, more intimate venue.  But this is a small quibble compared to the very large virtues of this production.

"Our Town" is a play that every American should see at least once in their lifetime.  This fine production by Insight continues at Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves through September 29.

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