Who’d a-thunk it? A fresh, innovative, heart-sqeezing new production of Thorton Wilder’s OUR TOWN is now playing in cool Durham’s hottest hipster district. It is, naturally, brought to us by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and director Jay O’Berski. This 1938 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was a chestnut when people still knew what a chestnut was. Set in a small New England town early in the 20th century (although here it looks more like the Hayti community of Durham in the same time frame), its ultimate purpose is to force recognition of the preciousness of ordinary life. Having been done to death in many a middle school, and its then-surprising staging techniques superceded by even more radical methods, OUR TOWN had rather faded from the roster of plays considered for serious productions.
O’Berski likes to have many things happening simultaneously on stage; he likes to push to the edge of chaos. For him, this is a remarkably controlled and unmessy production, but the script lends it self surprisingly well to his preferences. He captures the wheeling nature of time beautifully by having the show performed in the round in The Trotter Building’s open event space; he shows the interweaving and overlapping nature of lives in a community by the way the characters move in, through and around the audience, which sits in a single row around the “stage.” As many readers will know, Wilder gathers the audience in by use of a Stage Manager/Narrator who speaks directly to us; O’Berski amplifies our sense of belonging with the physicality of his approach. There are a few moments when the difficult acoustics of the space make mush of multiple voices speaking at once, but it doesn’t really matter because the physical acting is so clear.
The cast is uniformly strong. Many of the actors perform several parts, and O’Berski made some excellent casting choices for those roles. Lakeisha Coffey plays both Mrs. Webb and Constable Warren–I had to look at the program to know that the latter was she. The same was true for Jennifer Blocker, playing the two newspaper boys and the pontificating professor. The versatile Trevor Johnson plays Mr. Webb with an insouciant conviction and charms in his other roles, especially that of the milkman circling the town on Bessie, his bicycle horse. Kyma Lassiter as the warm-hearted, dream-deferring Mrs. Gibbs is wonderfully matched with Thaddaeus Edwards as Mr. Gibbs. Edwards is a very fine actor, and here he finds yet another new face and set of mannerisms. Carly Prentis Jones plays young Rebecca Gibbs and gives the speech about the letter addressed to a person on a farm in a county in a country on Earth in the solar system, etc,. with such joyous wonder I could hardly stay in my seat. Jones is also a knock-out in her turns as Stage Manager, and when she sings, solo, “Balm in Gilead” near the play’s conclusion…it’s exquisite. Jade Arnold, too, is very strong in all his parts–the suffering, drinking organist, the minister, and the Stage Manager–and particularly commanding in the latter, as he pins each of us with his knowing eye.
Teenagers George Gibbs and Emily Webb are at the heart of OUR TOWN’s story, and their actors do them proud. J. Alphonse Nicholson is an extremely talented, highly disciplined young actor still burgeoning at an almost incredible rate, and who seems to have skipped right over the self-consciously arty actor phase. He is completely believable in that tough scene where he has to tell Emily he’ll do better, a believability few men can muster, onstage or off. I’d not seen Aurelia Belfield before, but I certainly plan to again, as soon as possible. Her multi-faceted interpretation of Emily is rich and surprising, and at the end, tears were running down her face–and mine, and those all around.
Liam O’Neill and Steve Tell have contrived some lovely lighting effects; Chelsea Kurtzman’s costuming is excellent, but Justin Robinson’s music direction makes this show really special. From the opening band parade by the full cast breaking loose on “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” to its delicate reprise at the finale, the play is punctuated by beautiful singing.
I say, hallelujah. Because in OUR TOWN, in this town, the day has finally come when we can be judged on the content of our characters, and not the color of our skins.
OUR TOWN runs Thurs.-Sat. through Sept. 21. House capacity is small but every seat is equally good. Do yourself a big favor and reserve in advance. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/418928 or call 1.800.838.3006.