Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Our Town
Ross Valley Players
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Kooza and Babes in Ho-lland

Jaedan Sanchez
Photo by Robin Jackson
Our Town is, according to Edward Albee, himself one of America's greatest playwrights, "the greatest American play ever written." Theatre companies seem to agree, for it is one of the most-produced plays of all time. At first glance, the play seems stodgy and old-fashioned. It is, after all, set in the early 20th century (the action takes place in 1901-1913), in a quintessential American town, the fictional Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The action is minimal: characters tend their gardens, greet the milkman, gaze up at the moon, gossip, fall in love, die. Despite this, because of its structure and timeless themes, it still manages to feel contemporary, which may be part of the reason Ross Valley Players chose to include it in this season's offerings.

Thornton Wilder took tremendous risks for the time (he finished writing the play in 1937), taking a metatheatrical approach to its form. The main character is the Stage Manager (played here with terrific charm and empathy by Lisa Morse), who breaks the fourth wall, talking to the audience and reminding us that this is a play, announcing the acts, commenting on the characters and the action. Wilder stipulated the play was to be performed with minimal scenery, no set, and very few (if any) props. Director Chloe Bronzan has honored this request: she has staged the show almost at a bare minimum. There are a few plain, straight-back chairs, a couple of tables and wooden arches, two ladders, a scrim that comes into play in act three, and that's pretty much it. Drinking and eating and gardening and throwing a ball–all are indicated by mime.

This spare approach to scenics leaves room for our imaginations to fill in everything else, and for us to focus on the actors without being distracted by a set or props. It also allows for scene changes to happen instantly–and with the guidance of the Stage Manager, we know precisely where we are at all times, at one point, even down to the latitude and longitude of Grover's Corners.

Apart from some rather stiff line readings early in the evening, the cast is wonderful. As George Gibbs, the boy who falls in love with his next door neighbor Emily (Tina Traboulsi), Jaedan Sanchez brings a sense of youthful energy and optimism, sparkling with vibrancy, yet pulling inward when the angst of teen years seems more than his character wants to bear. He and Traboulsi have a delightfully casual chemistry that seems to create a locus around which the rest of the characters orbit.

This is a relatively large cast, 13 in total, and there are delightful performances from top to bottom. Lauri Smith imbues Mrs. Gibbs with a fire that sets her eyes alight with both anger and awe. Michael-Paul Thomsett plays her husband, Doc Gibbs, with a weariness that comes from seeing life at both ends: birth and death. Tom Reilly has expressive eyes and an easy physicality that changes oh-so-subtly as he moves from one role to the next. (He plays the town constable, a professor and Mr. Morgan, the druggist.) He has a terrific icy stare as the constable, and a wonderful professorial mien as Professor Willard. Ann Fairlie's take on Mrs. Soames is beyond delightful, so fully does she subsume herself in the role.

Despite its age, Our Town is timeless in all the best ways. Through Chloe Bronzan's sure-handed direction, the themes–mostly subtextual in the first two acts–come screaming to the fore by act three, which has a lovely, otherworldly feel to it, achieved through nothing more than the stoicism of the actors playing deceased citizens of Grover's Corners and the veil between the worlds of the dead and living created by a scrim. Wilder and his characters call attention to the simple things in life we often overlook: the beauty of moonlight, the smell of heliotropes, "new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up." The world changes, Wilder tells us, it always does. But too often we focus on what is changing rather than what is eternal. As Ferris Bueller said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Or, as Simon Stimson (Peter Warden) puts it, from his POV as a corpse in the town graveyard, "That's what it was to be alive."

Life is full of simple pleasures. This production of Our Town is one of them.

Our Town runs through February 25, 2024, at The Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross CA. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $35 general admission, $20 for this 18 and under. For tickets and information, please visit