This staging of the classic play reveals it is still the microcosm of American life
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., May 7, 2010
Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 476-0541,
Through May 23
Running time: 2 hr., 50 min.
Bestowing the title of "quintessential American play" might be at best a nebulous pursuit, but if any one play could lay claim to the title, Thornton Wilder's paean to small-town Americana would be it. Wilder wrote of a time before the wars that shook the world, when horseback was still the dominant mode of transportation, when everyone in a town knew everyone else and their business, and it really did take a village, or a town, to raise a child. An innocent time. A time very different from the time we live in now.
Despite the differences, in this Equity production at Zach Theatre, Director Dave Steakley has in a sense chosen to update Wilder's play. While Steakley keeps the script intact, using improvisation only at those moments Wilder suggests, he and his designers have put the characters in modern dress and placed modern props among the action, including one very funny choice to replace a horse pulling a milk cart. The set design, credited to the Zach Artistic Staff, works particularly well at evoking mood, especially when highlighted with the rich and colorful washes of lighting designer Jason Amato. One of the impressive charms of the production is the wedding in the second act, when the entire audience is moved from the Kleberg Stage into the Nowlin Studio to witness the wedding of the two central characters, George and Emily, and – yes! – have a piece of cake at their reception.
While all of the acting is energetic and committed, certain performances stand out, none more so than Jaston Williams as the Stage Manager. Wilder was one of the first writers to break the fourth wall that had been constructed by American realism, and he used his Stage Manager character as both a narrator and a philosopher, directly addressing the audience and demonstrating for us how Grover's Corners represents the essence of human experience. Steakley could not have made a better choice for the role than Williams, who has the age to carry the wisdom inherent in the role and the pure presence to hold our attention consistently. Williams almost invariably makes acting look easy (it never is), and he makes it look oh-so-easy here. And while other performances stand out in this small-town story of love, life, and death, young Crystal Odom as Rebecca Gibbs steals every scene in which she appears (and even one in which she doesn't).
I would be remiss if I didn't mention sound designer Craig Brock, who provides such pure evocations of nature that I often felt as if I were sitting outdoors rather than in a theatre. And while I cannot say that Steakley's attempt to update the play entirely works, I think I understand why he felt compelled to place an iPod and an Austin American-Statesman conspicuously among the properties. I think he wanted to say: "This is not just Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. This is everywhere and both now and then. This is a microcosm of American life that reflects the macrocosm of human existence. The desire not just to live life but to feel its wonder." And in Wilder's play, it really is.