The "Our Town" you saw in high school could probably give you a sugar high. A rounded production like the one that debuted Saturday night on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage should cause you to revise your take on the old chestnut.
Although it has long had a reputation for treacle, "Our Town" in fact uses the everyday facts of life as fodder for a dead-serious meditation on universal themes. It is tinged with a certain darkness. Chay Yew, who directed, is interested in that.
One wondered how this small, intimate play would come across in the huge (1,200 seats) outdoor theater, and how the elaborate, Elizabethan design of the stage itself — a stylized evocation of London circa-1600 — would serve the play's famously bare set.
Not to worry. While the production is admittedly not as intimate as it would have been in, say, the OSF's New Theatre, it does mange to invite the audience in most of the time. This is due in part to Richard L. Hay's minimalist set and Robert Peterson's lights. And it's due to Anthony Heald, in a shining turn as the Stage Manager, showing us around.
And when the thing opens out in the third act to intimations of infinity, with the dead on their hill under the stars, there, above the cupola high atop the Elizabethan stage, is Ursa Major wheeling in the blackness of the night sky. Wow.
Now, the characters are predominantly sweet, particularly in the first two acts. And things are slow, the action minimal. You even get a sinking feeling that maybe Yew is going for the humor after all.
But Wilder has undeniably sprinkled gently humorous moments throughout acts one and two: Howie Newsome's (Rex Young) horse wanting to deliver milk to a house that no longer takes it, Emily Webb (Mahira Kakkar) deciding she loves money, Professor Willard (James Edmondson) launching into a lecture so deadly dull that Heald must cut him off before we fall asleep.
The first two acts are after all given over to life and love — the domestic stuff of warm feelings and laughter. Reckon you know, as the Stage Manager observes, what the third act is about.
The first two acts are a big set-up. Wilder, writing in the late 1930s about a time a generation earlier, has stripped life — and the stage, which is bare except for some tables and chairs here and there — of everything not essential. The characters are not meant to be fleshed out. Dr. Gibbs (Hassan El-Amin) and editor Webb (Richard Howard) are Everymen. George (Todd Bjurstrom) and Emily are every young person who ever fell in love. And Our Town, although here manifested as Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, from 1901 to 1913, is Your Town.
Under the charming exterior of this little whitebread, Republican town are hidden pain, wounds, regrets. Mrs. Gibbs (Demetra Pittman) will never see Paris. Simon Stimson (Dan Donohue) lives inside a tragedy forever opaque not only to us but to his fellow townsmen. And must not Polishtown be full of stories too?
In Act Three we get down to brass tacks. Emily, now dead, is not ready to let go of life. What she learns is meant for us. Nobody ever really sees us. We don't live every, every minute. It is insupportable.
Kakkar plays resistance beautifully. We feel her pain.
"Our Town" is written in three very distinct acts, and this production has but one intermission, coming at the end of Act Two, which works out OK. You wouldn't put it in the middle. I will not give away the staging of the third act, but it is very powerful.
"Our Town" depends in large part on the Stage Manager. The danger of a darker "Our Town" is that of the Stage Manager becoming an ironic smart aleck. Heald, while now allowing any hint of a Norman Rockwell thing to seep into his character, does not do that. It is a fine line well-walked. Heald is earnest but never cynical or condescending. He is an observer, not a critic. "Our Town" it is not "Main Street," and Grover's Corners is no Gopher Prairie.
The darkness in "Our Town" is the fear around that mysterious, impenetrable sleep with our little lives are rounded. You can conjure in a stripped down allegory, or by just looking at the stars. Wilder's genius is in showing us what's left when almost everything has fallen away.
Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.