Review: Our Town

City Theatre’s safe staging of the classic embraces nostalgia

Eli Berke as George Gibbs and Catherine Williams as Emily Webb in City Theatre’s Our Town (Photo by Aleks Ortynski)

The City Theatre Company, which has temporarily lost its permanent venue due to unforeseen permit issues, has found refuge at Picturebox Studios and in Our Town’s Grover’s Corners. They are a good fit.

Only minimal production values are required for the re-creation of the New Hampshire town in which Thornton Wilder’s 1938 metatheatrical play takes place – in fact, the playwright calls for no curtain, no scenery, and an empty stage in half-light – and the community theatre company’s current home-away-from-home is hard-pressed to offer more.

Wilder’s play serves up a Norman Rockwell portrait of everyday life in small town, turn-of-the-20th-century America. It calls upon a simpler, more innocent time that taps (in the words of the play’s folksy, omnipresent Stage Manager) the “way we were in our growing-up and in our marrying, and in our living, and in our dying.”

Of course, the simpler times Our Town taps are those experienced by the mostly Protestant, exclusively heterosexual, and entirely white people who populate it, and traditional stagings of this play cast accordingly. But our actual town consists of people of ranging color, religious diversity, gender fluidity, and expansive physical and mental capability.

Director and production designer Andy Berkovsky does not give into the temptation of re-envisioning the world created by Wilder with more diverse casting, as others have done. Although one actor is African-American, an elderly performer plays a child, and the fellow playing the town drunk has blue hair, these are choices of convenience and circumstance rather than anything remotely conceptual. And Berkovsky allows an overtly sentimental haze to rise from his production, which largely sidesteps the town’s darker elements – a suicide, a faithless clergyman, a lack of culture – and explains why playwright Edward Albee called this work one of the “toughest, saddest plays ever written” and asked, “Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?”

There are hearts and flowers galore in this production, due largely to the overriding innocence delivered by Eli Berke and Catherine Williams in their thoroughly engaging portrayals of neighborhood playmates George Gibbs and Emily Webb. At its core, Our Town tells the story of George and Emily, who fall in love over an ice cream soda at Morgan’s corner drugstore, marry in the Congregational Church after graduating from high school, and go their separate ways when Emily dies bearing their second child. Berke and Williams’ charm – the show’s greatest assets – drive this production.

But with the exception of Valenica Lee and Chris Gloyna, who are authentic and endearing in their portrayals of Emily’s parents, lesser performances are turned in by other ensemble members. Actors pantomime props, as is called for in the script, but do so with little verisimilitude. And lines are delivered stiffly, as if being read from the script.

Chuck Winkler as the Stage Manager actually does read from a script throughout the production. This turns the character’s breaking of the fourth wall – a risky innovation when first performed 80 years ago – into an on-again/off-again enterprise, and turns the Stage Manager into an uninformed tour guide rather than a nostalgic storyteller who gives life to the phantoms he has called onto the bare stage.

The bare stage is augmented by projected photographic images on the back wall to help create a greater sense of Grover’s Corners. While such realism flies in the face of the playwright’s wishes, it actually works quite nicely.

Although this production of Our Town is found wanting, chances are you will still find yourself waxing nostalgic during the first act, falling in love with Emily and George by the second act, and weeping at the close of the third. Not a bad takeaway from any production of Wilder’s work.

OUR TOWN
Picturebox Studios, 701 Tillery
www.citytheatreaustin.org
Through March 3
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

City Theatre Company, Thornton Wilder, City Theatre, Andy Berkovsky, Eli Berke, Catherine Williams, Valencia Lee, Chris Gloyna

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