For a Hot Time, Come on over to OUR TOWN

The cast of The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern's new production of  OUR TOWN. Photo: Alex Maness.

The cast of The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern’s new production of OUR TOWN, through September 21 at The Trotter Building. Photo: Alex Maness.

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 Having been done to death in many a middle school, and its then-surprising staging techniques superceded by even more radical methods, OUR TOWN had rather faded from the roster of plays considered for serious productions.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.

Nicholson and Belfield as George and Emily.

Nicholson and Belfield as George and Emily. Photo: Jaybird O’Berski.

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. or call 1.800.838.3006.


Surviving with Loudon and other news as PlayMakers Opens 13/14 Season

Loudon Wainwright III and image of Loudon Wainwright Jr., in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of SURVIVING TWIN, written & performed by Loudon Wainwright III, and directed by PlayMakers Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Loudon Wainwright III and image of Loudon Wainwright Jr., in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of SURVIVING TWIN, written & performed by Loudon Wainwright III, and directed by PlayMakers Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj. Playing in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art  Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Andrea Akin.

“Storytelling lies at the heart of both theatre and song, and this basic human need fuels our appreciation for both art forms and their forms of artifice. PlayMakers Repertory Company  has opened its 2013/14 season with a PRC2 production of an interesting experiment including sung stories by singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright, III. In Surviving Twin, which is directed by Joseph Haj, Wainwright examines the relationship between fathers and sons, or, more precisely, his relationship with his father and, to a lesser degree, with his own son. The family lines branch to other generations, but this remains a very personal story. The audience must do its own work to raise its content to the universal plane. Some may find it heavy lifting.”


Life with and without father: Loudon Wainwright III in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of his show SURVIVING TWIN. Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Life with and without father: Loudon Wainwright III in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere production of his show SURVIVING TWIN. Sept. 4-8, 2013. Photo: Andrea Akin.

Like all of the PRC2 productions, SURVIVING TWIN runs for only a few days. But coming up soon after on the main stage in the Paul Green Theater is one not to miss if you can help it. September 18 PlayMakers will open THE MOUNTAINTOP, by Katori Hall (b. Memphis, TN, 1981). Set in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on April 3, 1968, Hall’s play examines Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth. The play premiered in London in 2009, and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. It had successful run on Broadway, and is now being produced around the country. For PlayMakers, it will be directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, who gave us such a beautiful production of RAISIN IN THE SUN last season. Whether you can remember the stunning blow of April 4, 1968, or like Hall were not yet born, this is a play to help you, me and us with our own history. It will run in the Paul Green Theater through October 6.

To double its impact and share its costs, PlayMakers is co-producing THE MOUNTAINTOP with Triad Stage. The Greensboro performances will take place October 20-November 10 in The Pyrle Theater, 232 S. Elm Street–very near the site of the early lunch-counter sit-ins against segregation. This kind of artistic cooperation will allow more arts organizations to live long and prosper. Viva PRC! (and RIP North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, which bit the dust mid-season this summer, all alone in High Point).

If you need any more evidence that PlayMakers is our theatrical powerhouse, take a look at these new grants. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has just awarded PRC a cool quarter-million dollars to continue its incubation program, in which theatre ensembles from elsewhere develop works during annual residencies at UNC. Win-win-win.

The National Endowment for the Arts is chipping in $45,000 to support PRC’s season finale in April, 2014. The company will perform Stephen Sondheim’s musical ASSASSINS. You just gotta love the nerve of these folks, starting the season just before one assassination and wrapping it up–in this day and age!–with one with the tagline: “When You’ve Got a Gun Everybody Pays Attention.” All hats off for Joe Haj, please.

The NEA has also awarded PlayMakers yet another grant ($25,000) from its “Shakespeare for a New Generation” program, to support this season’s production of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, which will run in rotating repertory with Mary Zimmerman’s modern version of the classical METAMORPHOSES by Ovid, November 2-December 8. Both will have water on the stage…but will this TEMPEST drown out memories of the extraordinary 2004  swan-song version by Shakespeare & Originals that featured powerful performances by Tom Marriott as Prospero and Jordan Smith as Caliban, along with beautiful work by Jay O’Berski, Cheryl Chamblee and a host of others? Only one way to find out.

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