Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Our Town was quite radical when it first appeared. Wilder intended for it to be performed with virtually no scenery or props. The actors mime all kinds of activities, from delivering milk from a horse-drawn wagon to endless regimens of cooking and baking, from working out homework problems to sipping strawberry sodas while discovering yourself to be in love. With stage shows today competing for the most elaborate sets and awesome special effects, the staging in Our Town may seem like a theatrical death wish. Far from it, its simplicity and confidence in its audience's imagination is part of its greatness.
The play tells a simple story of a small town by focusing on George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who have grown up as next-door neighbors. We observe George and Emily experience the pains and pleasures of stepping out of childhood and into adult life, the joy and dread in promising to love one another forever, and the twinned despair and serenity that attends the inevitable end we all will face. The story contains no baffling secrets, comic foibles, mistaken identities, or eleventh-hour reveals. The everydayness of George and Emily's world, their parents, and their neighbors is curated for us by the Stage Manager, a unique character who acts as a narrator, free of any fourth wall barrier; delineates all the elements we are invited to imagine; and whose running commentary on the events manages to confer upon them an abiding awe and beauty that declares the small and routine moments as the real miracles of life.
The play is set in the fictional small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. It is told in three acts, the first set in 1901, the second in 1904 and the last in 1913. the Stage Manager orients us to the lay of the land in great specificity, so that we know Grover's Corners as well, if not better, than we know the town where we live. Act One is called Daily Life, and as it paints a vivid portrait of the minutia of daily life, it also lays out the way in which small points of life experience, viewed from our perspective, create the panorama of a life lived. Act Two is called Love and Marriage, which marks a decisive pivot for George and Emily, while Act Three, called Death and Eternity, offers speculation about the "life" of those who have moved on from life as we know it, as well as the effect of loss on those still in this world.
True to Wilder's intent, the stage at Open Window is practically devoid of scenery, a pair of narrow trellises adorned with flowers there to satisfy any in the audience who insist on scenery. Bedroom windows are indicated by characters standing atop ladders, a soda fountain is whisked into place by laying an ironing board across the backs of two chairs, a table standing on end becomes the minister's pulpit, and so on. Though there are no books, we "see" George and Emily carry books home from school; there are no cups, yet we see George gingerly accept a steaming cup of coffee from Mrs. Webb.
The cast is remarkable, particularly in the principal roles. Jeremy Stanbary stands at the center of the play as the Stage Manager, radiating folksy warmth, forthright honesty, and wisdom modulated by humility. He conveys his sense of privilege to know this place, these people, and their stories, and shares that privilege with a generous heart. As George and Emily, Jonah Smith and Jillian Ehlke give stirring performances, each starting out a bit self-absorbed in the manner common to teenagers, each growing before our eyes. Smith has an extraordinarily sincere manner that makes it impossible not to believe in George's innate goodness. Ehlke persuasively conveys Emily's widening understanding of the nature of life. They relate wonderfully well together, bringing real strength to the play at its core.
Emily and George's parents are also key characters. The four actors all convey a warmth and affection between husbands and wives that grounds their families. Katherine Kupiecki as Mrs. Webb and Peter Colburn as Mr. Webb, editor of the town newspaper, provide a solid foundation in which Emily grows and blossoms. Kupiecki depicts Mrs. Webb's practical and forthright nature, as when she struggles to respond honestly to Emily's query "Mother, am I pretty?" Colburn warmly conveys a father's affection for the daughter who has always been his "little girl." Kate Kaufmann is wonderful as Mrs. Gibbs, a woman who longs to see some of the world beyond Grover's Corners without ever diminishing her love for their family and home. Craig Johnson offers an excellent portrayal of Doctor Gibbs as a trustworthy and sensitive man. When he conveys his disappointment to George for not doing his part to help his hard-working mother with household chores, he does so with an authority based on love, not on force. It is one of many deeply moving scenes in Wilder's play, and superbly acted.
Other notable performances include John Goodrich as a reliable and congenial milkman and as a long-winded professor invited in by the Stage Manager to present some history of Grover's Corners, Rick Lamers as the town constable, Wini Froelich as a chattering towns woman, and Dawson Ehlke as a church choir director fighting off demons he must keep buried, a testament that for all its wholesome neighborliness, Grover's Corners is not ready to accept those who stray from the life that is expected of one another, and those who do stray pay a price.
MaryBeth Schmid has designed charming costumes that ably provide a visual reference to the era, and Olivia Lundsten has designed effective lighting. Corey Mill is credited as pantomime coach, and from the results seen on stage, has done outstanding work with the cast.
Our Town premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1938 before heading to Broadway. The play, however, takes place between 1901 and 1913–before the cataclysmic effects of World War I and the dislocation and despair caused by the Great Depression. Wilder knew how much more terrible the world would become than did George, Emily, their families and neighbors. If the Webbs and the Gibbs were typical folks at the start of the twentieth century, how different might their story be if it were set in the 1930s? Did Wilder intentionally go back to a time that was unaware of the great hardships looming ahead? Had he meant to sift out a message from that earlier era to benefit a public that was wrestling with those great hardships?
Total speculation, of course, but it does strike me that with the current upheavals in our society–polarized government, growing economic inequity, increasing threat of climate calamity, a call for racial justice, rampant gun violence, and more–the message in Our Town is a welcome balm. It focuses attention on the things that matter most in life, a focus which, if widely realized, might offer a step toward resolving those complex issues. If that is too much to ask of an eighty-five-year-old stage work, suffice to say that it remains a beautiful play, unlike any other, and is being given a rousing and heartfelt production by Open Window Theatre.
Our Town runs through May 28, 2023, at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights MN. Tickets: Adults - $30, seniors (65 and up), students, military and clergy - $28; Children (ages 46) - $20. Ticket prices include a $2 service fee. This play is recommended for ages 13 and up. For tickets and information, please call 612-615-1515. or visit openwindowtheatre.org.
Playwright: Thornton Wilder; Director: Kari Steinbach; Scenic and Props Design: Nate Farley; Costume Design: Marybeth Schmid; Lighting Design: Olivia Lundsten; Sound Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Music Director: Amanda Weis; Pantomime Coach: Corey Mills; Production Stage Manager: Lauren Volkart.
Cast: Stephen Brewer (swing), Peter Colburn (Editor Webb), Annie Day (swing), Dawson Ehlke (Simon Stimson), Jillian Ehlke (Emily Webb), Wini Froelich (Mrs. Soames), John Goodrich (Howie Newsome/Professor Willard), Craig Johnson (Doc Gibbs), Madeline Mae Kapel (Rebecca Gibbs), Katie Kaufmann (Mrs. Gibbs), Katherine Kupiecki (Mrs. Webb), Rick Lamers (Constable Warren), Joshua Row (Crowell Brothers), Jonah Smith (George Gibbs), Augustine Stanbary (Wally Webb), Jeremy Stanbary (Stage Manager).