“This play is called OUR TOWN.” With that opening line, you know you’re in for something different. For the first show of their season, the Players Club of Swarthmore tackles Thornton Wilder’s most famous work. The story takes place in the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners at the turn of the 20th century.
Grover’s Corners is a pleasant but unremarkable place to live. There’s the town doctor, the paperboy, the newspaper editor, etc. We watch the characters go about their simple lives, commenting about the weather and local gossip. At the start, the plot stays nebulous. But as we enter Acts II and III, deeper themes develop as the play directly confronts complex topics such as marriage and death.
Featured is the budding relationship between neighbors Emily (Bailey Lynn Shaw) and George (Richard Deaver, Jr.). We first meet them as schoolyard chums, then as newlyweds, and finally as…well, I won’t spoil it. Not unlike the rest of the townsfolk, Emily and George are simple people seeking their own purpose in life.
OUR TOWN is one of my favorite plays. If you missed reading it in school, you’ll find it full of surprises. While it does deliver a message, the show leaves a lot open to interpretation. The seemingly mundane actions in Act I suddenly have powerful significance in Act III, when we realize that we ultimately are defined by the sum of such actions. OUR TOWN is about life with a capital “L”, and PCS’s production mostly captures this to a “t”.
At the show’s core is the omniscient Stage Manager (John Harvey) who speaks directly to the audience. Although the Stage Manager is neither bound by space or time, Wilder was careful not to allow this role to go over audience’s heads. Harvey, previously of WMGK’s “Harvey in the Morning” fame (although I’ll always fondly remember him as the announcer of Nickelodeon’s “Double Dare”), portrays an identifiable but mysterious everyman. And who better to narrate the show and introduce us to the other characters than a former radio personality and game show announcer?
I have a few comments about PCS’s production, directed by Ellen Wilson Dilks, which are largely positive. First, Wilder wrote this play to be performed with a minimal set and NO props, meaning the cast must mime ALL activity they engage in. As a former actor in this show myself, I know it requires meticulous rehearsal to make the performers appear to be living in a world the audience cannot completely see. PCS’s entire cast should be commended for the fine detail they gave to both simple motions such as opening a door and more complicated tasks like cooking breakfast. On a related note, Dilks’s blocking made best use of the stage and kept everything varied and fluid.
Overall, I was impressed with the acting, but I must single out Shaw as Emily. Emily has the greatest character arc in the show. She begins as a somewhat self-involved teenager who must mature by Act III to a woman who gains a great appreciation for life. Shaw captivates from the very start, exhibiting wonderful comic timing and bold body language and facial expressions. She displayed an authentic comprehension of the difficult source material, and her performance in Act III pulled at heart strings. There were other strong performances as well. A few standouts include Jennifer Wolfe as George’s mother, Anne Allen as busybody Mrs. Soames, and Gerry Alexander as the personable milkman.
I saw the show opening night, and there were a couple issues I hope can be improved as the run continues. First, several lighting cues seemed to be either late or improperly programmed, and actors often would start speaking before the light came up on them. While I enjoyed the costumes, the overhead lights sometimes cast dark shadows across the faces of women wearing hats. Second, I sat in the middle of the auditorium and had difficulty hearing certain performers who were not projecting sufficiently, resulting in the loss of some great lines. Yet there was one very loud exclamation uttered by a character near the show’s end that ripped me out of a touching moment, and I wonder if that segment would have a weightier impact if played silently. I did think the addition of music—always a risky element to add in any play—fit the show’s style and set the proper mood.
OUR TOWN is a play that lives up to its hype, and PCS’s production is definitely recommended. I disagree with those who claim the show is dated. It was a period piece when Wilder penned it in 1938. The emotions it evokes are timeless. To paraphrase the Stage Manager: “Everyone knows that something is eternal. Deep down there’s something eternal about every human being.” I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Ellen Wilson Dilks
September 16-October 1, 2011
The Players Club of Swarthmore
614 Fairview Road
Swarthmore, PA 19081