AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Thornton Wilder
Presented by Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Barbara Oliver
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA / (510) 843-4822

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Versatile acting and inventive staging are the hallmarks of Aurora Theatre Company's production of "Wilder Times," a collection of four short plays by Thornton Wilder. Aurora chose the plays and titled the show as a tribute to one of the nation's greatest playwrights. According to artistic director Tom Ross, the title reflects the way that "time and how we human beings move through it are major themes in Wilder's work."

The show is divided into two acts, starting with the first two plays from a series, "Seven Ages of Man," that Wilder never finished. These two, "Infancy" and "Childhood" were first produced in 1962. "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden" and "The Long Christmas Dinner," which comprise the second half, were written in 1931, but both are considered Wilder's best known short works.

The cast features six actors -- Heather Gordon, Søren Oliver, Marcia Pizzo, Stacy Ross, Patrick Russell and Brian Trybom. Focused direction by Barbara Oliver, Aurora's co-founder and retired artistic director, lends unity to the show. Before each act, for example, the actors sing simple songs like "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" as they move set pieces into place. Eric Sinkkonen's mostly unadorned set, Maggi Yule's color-coordinated costumes and Jim Cave's lighting also unify the show.

In terms of writing, the first half of the show is the weaker. "Infancy" is set in an urban park where a nanny (Gordon) and mother (Ross) tend to infants (Russell and Trybom) in baby carriages. While the women talk, the babies alternate between napping and being frustrated that they can't understand the adults. Oliver (son of the director) adds some comic moments as a cop. Only good acting and directing keep this work moving.

The next part, "Childhood," is more interesting. Ross and Trybom portray parents who are trying to figure out what their children do when they're not around. The children are played by Pizzo as the eldest and leader, Gordon as the middle child and Russell as the youngest.

In "The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden," a family is on it way to visit the eldest daughter, who is married. Again Pizzo plays that eldest daughter, while Gordon and Russell are the other two kids. Ross is the mother again, while Oliver is the father. In a technique developed more fully in Wilder's "Our Town," Trybom is the stage manager.

By far the most satisfying and intriguing work is the last, "The Long Christmas Dinner," which takes place over the course of several generations as a family gathers for Christmas dinner. It starts with Oliver and Pizzo as a newlywed couple joined by her mother, played by Ross, who recalls Christmases past. From there the action smoothly segues to births and deaths (signified as some musical notes in musical director Chris Houston's sound design) as family dynamics change and one generation gives way to the next. It's a touching depiction of the importance of family and family rituals.

Playing roles that vary in age and personality, all of the actors are outstanding. Except for the last act, however, the show doesn't have the heft of Wilder's most successful plays, "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth."

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