By Manning Harris
The Shakespeare Tavern is currently offering Thornton Wilder’s classic American play “Our Town,”directed by Andrew Houchins, running through April 26. The play was written in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize. It has been read by countless high school and college students and performed on stage, screen, and television many times.
Leonardo da Vinci said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The Tavern appears to have heeded that axiom, for their affecting, powerful production is stripped of all frills, set, or props, just as Wilder indicated. Theatre scholars would call the play nonillusionistic, presentational drama. Most of us would call it simply a representation of small town life that has gentle but insistent metaphysical urgings.
And just when you may think it’s time to retire the old chestnut, you find it still has the power to make you confront your own mortality and immortality at the same time. How many plays can do that?
The setting is the fictitious town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire; the time is 1901. George Gibbs (Adam King) and Emily Webb (Galen Crawley) are high school sweethearts. Doc Gibbs (J. Tony Brown) and Mrs. Gibbs (Nancy Riggs) are George’s parents; Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Troy Willis and Anja Lee) are Emily’s parents. The actors portray the parents beautifully.
The Tavern’s Artistic Director, Jeffrey Watkins, plays the Stage Manager, the godlike master of ceremonies, shall we say, of the entire evening. It’s a role for which he is perfectly cast: He must talk to the audience quite a bit, and it’s vital that he keeps things moving, as well as project a sense of gentle omniscience. Mr. Watkins does both, masterfully.
Back to George and Emily: Soon they are engaged, and Act II focuses on the wedding day activities, including the marriage itself. Mr. King is an earnest and sincere George, and Ms. Crawley is a lovely Emily, vulnerable yet strong and yearning for the beauty and happiness that life can offer. In Act III she breaks your heart; more of that in a moment.
This “Our Town” has a fine cast, from Robert Wayne’s excitable and eager Professor Willard, to Nicholas Faircloth’s Simon Stimson, the choir director who’s also the town drunk. Amanda Lindsey, Vinnie Mascola, Chris Schulz, David Sterritt, Clark Weigle, Rachel Frawley, Christa West, Elijah Forbes, and Joseph Masson all make important contributions. There are truly no small parts in the theatre, as you know.
But the play’s the thing, as the Bard said. The Stage Manager introduces the famous graveyard scene in Act III, and he says that “everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.” And suddenly we’re in a remembrance and meditation that can induce weeping, as both the dead and the living remind us of—certain things. I’m not going to steal their lines.
I will say that the wistful and radiant Ms. Crawley anchors Act III with her heartfelt epiphanies, and you will be moved.
If I may be permitted a personal note, I received word that a high school classmate of mine had died the day I saw the play; and as I write these words, I’ve learned that yet another classmate has passed on.
I would not make this up. They were not close friends, but I knew them. I first saw “Our Town” when I was a senior in high school. I liked it then; I’m very moved by it now.
The Tavern’s production runs through this weekend; it can stop time for you, if you let it.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.