Reviewed by Judy Richter
Over the years, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" has become a classic of the American theater. For some high school thespians, it's their first play, yet it's a sure hit with professional companies, too. Part of the reason for the success of this 1938 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama is its evocation of a simpler life and bedrock American values of family and community. When it premiered, however, it was considered radical because of its simple scenery, time shifts and use of the Stage Manager. It also called into question some of those bedrock values.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, opening its new season, is taking a different approach under the guidance of Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater in neighboring Orinda. This production involves a more elaborate set (by Neil Patel, aided by Scott Zielinski's lights) and greater use of music (sound and additional music by Mark Bennett, choir direction by Susan Swerdlow), both of which enhance the production. For the last scene in the graveyard, for example, the backdrop used in the first two acts is removed, revealing rocky outcroppings, appropriate for Grover's Corners, N.H., early in the 20th century.
Moscone also departs from tradition by casting a woman, Barbara Oliver, as the Stage Manager. Unlike the other characters, who wear period costumes, Oliver appears in a simple black pant suit that sets off her white hair (costumes by Lydia Tanji). She takes a low-key, somewhat bemused approach that works well.
In addition to Oliver, a longtime Berkeley Rep actor and founding artistic director of the company's next-door neighbor, Aurora Theatre Company, Moscone has assembled a first-rate cast, most of them from the Bay Area. Newcomers include Emma Roberts as Emily Webb, Bill Heck as George Gibbs and Nance Williamson as Mrs. Webb. They blend in well with Julie Eccles as Mrs. Gibbs, Sharon Lockwood as Mrs. Soames, Jarion Monroe in several roles, Paul Vincent O'Connor as Mr. Webb, Charles Shaw Robinson as Dr. Gibbs, Ken Ruta as Simon Stimson, and T. Edward Webster as Howie Newsome and Sam Craig.
The play takes the audience through early life in Act 1, love and marriage in Act 2 and death in Act 3. It harks back to a more innocent time, as personified by the shy courtship between Emily and George, yet it also reminds us what few choices women had. They graduated from high school, they got married, they had children and they kept house and cooked for their families. A really momentous trip might involve a chance to see the Atlantic Ocean. Small wonder Moscone inserts a wistful, beautifully sung duet, "Faraway Places," for Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb.
Purists might take issue with Moscone's concept for this production, but it works well, retaining the nostalgia yet bringing out some of Wilder's original cynicism. Wilder, by the way, graduated from Berkeley High School in 1915.