By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Bartlett Sherr
Intiman Theatre
201 W Mercer St./ 206-269-1900

Reviewed by Christopher Comte

Thornton Wilder's 1938 theatrical masterpiece, "Our Town" is a tough nut to crack. On the one hand the play's major theme -- that too little attention is paid to the beauty of ordinary moments -- is so elegant in its simplicity that many productions misread the message as mere sentimentality. On the other hand, Wilder's meticulously crafted examination of small town life and Middle American values requires a scrupulous attention to detail, both in action and in emotional conviction, in order to successfully negotiate the play's movement from the ordinary to the sublime. Intiman Theatre Artistic Director Bartlett Sher makes a different kind of misjudgment in failing to maintain the proper balance between the outer, physical and inner, spiritual worlds of the play, but is eventually redeemed by several strong performances, and an emotionally wrenching finale that proves how impervious "Our Town" is to directorial tinkering.

Sherr has developed something of a reputation during his tenure at Intiman for introducing an audacious brand of theatricality to his productions (most recently with "Homebody/Kabul" and "Titus Andronicus"), with decidedly mixed success. Yet,"Our Town" with its Brechtian exposure of theatrical artifice would seem a natural fit for his aesthetic sensibilities. However, Sher makes a crucial misjudgment of his own by creating a physical production that, rather than stripping away the theatrical elements to achieve Wilder's stated goal that, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind -- not in things, not in 'scenery'", instead piles on more than are necessary or helpful (for example, his love of backlighting actors in silhouette, or when he brings in thousands of "stars" to create a night sky) in order to "jazz up" moments that would be more effective if handled less showily. For much of the play, he uses only the front third of the stage, and in many scenes the lights dim into tight pools around the actors, physically isolating them in space, which has the effect of de-emphasizing their presence in the artificial construct of the theatrical setting Even Christopher Akerlind's minimalist scenic design smacks of an attempt towards artful dishabille, with its bland, mustard yellow color scheme, carefully piled racks of pipe along the back wall and deliberately randomized red paint splotches above, all of which give the impression Sher doesn't quite trust his audience to devote their attention to actors occupying an otherwise bare, empty stage. This lack of trust in the audience's ability to fill in the empty spaces from the store of their own imaginations has the effect of distancing them from the world of the characters more than it draws them into it.

Despite this, Sher almost succeeds in erasing his conceptual transgressions by getting generally good, to simply outstanding performances from most of his cast of 24 - with a couple of glaring exceptions. Joaquin Torres's George Gibbs, while certainly gangly enough, seems rather long-in-the-tooth to be taking on a juvenile lead, and further tends to over emote in a way that is out of sync with the more naturalistic acting style adopted by most of his castmates. But far and away the most disappointing performance is that of veteran film actor Tom Skerritt in the crucial role of the Stage Manager. Whereas the character is designed to function as a sort of Greek Chorus, able to bend the rules of time-and-space for the sake of furthering Wilder's thematic agenda, all too often Skerrit himself seems to be the one lost in the constantly shifting landscape. Although he projects an affable, at times even charismatic stage persona, it is equally clear he is having serious technical difficulties managing the role. His performance suffers from numerous dropped lines, transpositions of text, add-libs, and mental lapses, not to mention requiring the use of a body microphone in order to be heard when more than 10 feet upstage, and which has the annoying habit of crackling with static whenever he puts on his jacket. While it may be hoped many of these problems will iron themselves out over the course of the run, at this point in time the limitations of his performance, and the effect it has on the production as a whole cannot be brushed aside.

On the plus side, Laurence Ballard as Dr. Gibbs gives his character a refreshing irascibility, while Allen Gilmore brings a nuanced sense of comic timing to his role as Emily's father, Mr. Webb. Likewise, their wives (played by Lisa Li and Jeanne Paulson respectively), ground their scenes of mundane domesticity with the sort of unembellished naturalism that perfectly matches the play's desire to seek out the beauty of even the most ordinary situations. But, the real saving grace of the production is Celia Keenan-Bolger as Emily Webb, who through the course of the play becomes its backbone and central figure. While she is not exactly a convincing teenager in the beginning, by the end of the play she has beautifully transitioned into a figure of heartbreaking pathos, taking us on a journey from birth to death - and beyond - with a haunting grace and power.

By the time "Our Town" reaches its final act, the crushingly sad funeral scene where Emily finally learns to let go of her earthly attachment to things, Wilder has performed a remarkable feat of transformation, taking the audience through a series of unextraordinary moments, which cumulatively add up to a state of pure spiritual transcendence. Sher still plants a couple of smudgy directorial fingerprints on the moment, but even he recognizes enough to mainly leave well enough alone. And for all the play's celebration of the mundane, the ordinary and the taken-for-granted, in the final analysis we are left with the feeling of how precious each of those moments can - and should be. It's a powerful gift, and one that this production, while far from perfect, nevertheless shares with heartfelt belief in the truth of its convictions.

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