Asked my fellow audience member after the show Friday night: “Have you ever seen a BAD ‘Our Town’?” She referred to another high-quality Indiana University Summer Theatre production, this time Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer- Drama Desk Award- and Tony Award-winning play about wasted moments, overlooked treasure and other notorious human behaviors.
The behavior that strikes me most is in a line from the play’s choir director, Simon Stinson (Joshua M. Smith): “To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another.” That is I. And, I suspect, many others, and Smith’s delivery of that line snapped at my conscience. We ignore the spouse, grab a bag of hot wings instead of taking the half hour to cook something, blow off a friend for a work assignment.
The early 1900s citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where Wilder’s characters work and play, ignore and deny, are all people we know, in disguise (costumes by Heather Milam), whether we live in Beijing or Bedford. We do these things and probably always have. Maybe it’s imbedded in our instincts for survival. After all, if we noticed all the homemade breakfasts and listened to every bluebird call, wouldn’t we have died out eons ago? When we should have been focused on hunting, gathering, achieving.
The play’s ingenue, Emily (Nina Donville) pleads, “. . . all that was goin’ on, and we never noticed! Do any human beings realize life as they live it?” Stinson answers no, except for some saints and poets.
This play intrigued me decades ago and still does. It’s one that lingers for days afterward, maybe months. A story about all of us, it stabs us in the gut as it describes our floating through life so immersed in our (seemingly) teensy trials that we are deaf to the joys and tribulations of others. The final scene with young George’s (Michael Bayler’s) once adoring mother (Karen Woditsch) barely noticing, and anything but interested in, him will haunt me forever. I won’t say more to avoid spoiling the ending.
The man seated next to me commented that because he grew up in New York City, Wilder’s plot doesn’t apply to his experiences. “We had no chickens to feed or cows to milk,” he explained. But his mother worked in Manhattan’s garment district, his father in a Manhattan restaurant. One person’s chickens are another’s bolt of percale or 30 dozen eggs to fry. Regardless of the town or city, “Our Town” is indeed our town.
Wilder describes the little things: mothers making thousands of breakfasts, births, a responsible paperboy on his route, ice cream sodas sipped by young lovers. How little are they, really? These are the moments that make a life, a town, a world.
Friday’s production began and ended in the dark, opening just before dawn and closing in the local cemetery, underground. The minimal use of props and scenery made Wilder’s writing and the cast’s ubiquitous talent all the more striking. Mark Ulrich claimed the night’s biggest share of applause. A flexible actor, he varied his pitch and style, even taking on additional roles, one as a vociferous neighbor lady. In answer to my friend’s question, “Have you ever seen a BAD “Our Town,” it would be “Yes,” if the director (Dale McFadden, here) doesn’t cast an excellent stage manager character. But he did. Ulrich narrates the story, keeping us informed and the plot rolling.
Last month I reviewed a play in which the young mother dies, but I couldn’t manage to care enough about her to feel the loss. No chills, no squeezing back tears. Without spoiling the ending of “Our Town” though, I will just say it produced those chills. And not just when the characters I had grown to like died. Donville’s Emily is dear and spunky. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to buy her an ice cream soda. Her scene with George as they admit their mutual love is one of this production’s best.
Bayler is the epitome of a sweet, eager boy stammering his way through exuberance in being face to face with his long-lived crush. Later, he is every man whose feet have gone cold on his wedding morning. Donville is equally darling here as the cherished daddy’s girl. “Just look at (George). I hate him. I don’t wanna get married,” she informs her daddy. At that moment, before the wedding march, she would much prefer to “run away” with Dad, who has always called her “My Girl.” The scene is too wonderful. Any woman who has loved a father would be rummaging for a Kleenex.
Glynnis Kunkel-Ruiz brought some necessary laughter as the officious Mrs. Soames. She looked beautiful in her crimson shawl and flower-trimmed hat, too. This is my favorite of the roles I’ve seen her play, and her characters here (lady in balcony, also) showcased her range.
The two mothers (Woditsch and Marya Grandy) were believable and well cast. I particularly enjoyed their roles in reminding me how women behaved in the early 20th century, postponing their own dreams, skirting any talk of sex and keeping those fresh breakfasts coming. Wilder’s many mentions of the day’s first meal reminded me, too, of our current granola bars and sugared lattes. A parent emerging from a warm bed and making oatmeal says something. Says many things.
Sean Blake played a lovable father of the bride. I get why Emily wants to escape with him and do his cooking and cleaning instead of marrying her dashing George. Smith’s alcoholic choir director has some of Wilder’s pithiest lines, and Smith handled each cogently, even, maybe especially, while drunk.
Andrew Hopson designed the sound, which was a highlight. From this minimalist set, we heard rain, thunder, trains, chickens clucking, a cow clopping and crickets rubbing their legs together. Allen Hahn’s lighting design was chilling — literally — in the cemetery but also in a more cheerful scene using spotlit ladders to indicate teenaged Emily’s and George’s bedroom windows.
Our town has “nobody very remarkable,” the stage manager announces. Untruer words were never spoken.