It’s good to be back for live theatre. During the curtain speech the preview audience of CCM’s “Our Town” welcomed back its first audience to be in the Patricia Corbett Theatre in over twenty months. What a welcome it was!
I have to confess that in all my years in theater, I’ve never seen a production of nor read the script of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” (please don’t tell my college drama professor). This
winner of the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a powerful timeless portrait of life in a mythical New Hampshire town that has become an American classic and one that is much needed to remind us what it means to be American.
Director Brant Russel has mounted a production that we need right at this moment. After the show, I did read the script. The play's directions call for it to be performed on an unadorned stage: "No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light." It’s almost a metaphor for our lives right now without theatre - unadorned and an empty stage with only a ghost light. But Russell’s cast and crew have brought a bright full-light to the empty stage and our hearts. This production brings out the play's abundant humor and warmth.
As the Stage Manager, Neuma Joy, takes on a daunting responsibility – it’s on her shoulders to set both scene and mood, at virtually every step. It’s something Joy accomplishes gently but very surely, and establishes a friendly rapport with the audience. When she’s onstage she is our tour guide, teacher, and friend, even as sits to the side. She’s that friend or aunt who speaks powerful words, then sits back and watches the conversation flow.
Russell has drawn sympathetic and often inspired moments from all of his cast, but the two most moving portrayals, for me, are Eli Lucas and Julianna Weis-Palacios. Their chemistry was sweet and showed their characters love story beautifully.
Lucas’s George Gibbs transitions from awkward, baseball dreaming, teenage boy to a young man determined to take on adulthood and marriage. The scene where Dr. Gibbs (Dustin Parsons) reminds George about his chores, lovingly admonishing him for his mother doing George’s woodchopping is a memorable scene and this reviewer was sweating palms as well as George. Dustin Parsons is wise beyond his years, an “old soul,” and one forgets that he’s a senior classman because you believe he’s a senior man marrying off his son.
When Weis-Palacios and Lucas sit at the improvised soda fountain counter divulging their feelings for one another, you can almost taste the ice cream sodas that they’re sipping - complete with improvised whipped cream and a cherry on top.
Each supporting character contributed to the scene at just the right level. Nathan Flesh’s nuanced newspaper toss is a delight as the paper lands onto the front porches, complete with the fancy twisting of the newspaper before they were wrapped in rubber bands and plastic bags delivered out of a moving vehicle. Ava Duvall has just the right amount of pithiness to her Mrs. Soames that you just know she’s always listening across the fence for the latest gossip.
From what I’ve researched and know about the show, this is a very traditional production of this play, wonderfully lit by Paige Baumann’s gorgeous, artful lighting design, and authentically adorned by María Fernanda Ortiz a López’s costumes.
Before writing “Our Town”, Wilder expressed his disappointment with the quality of American theater. He feared the opulent costumes and spectacular sets of Broadway did a disservice to the written word. "I felt that something had gone wrong," he wrote. "Finally my dissatisfaction passed into resentment. I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it didn't not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities." It was refreshing to step back into live theater with a slow transition from the hectic life outside. I’ll be ready for a more rousting production now that my theatre senses have been awakened.
This production, like each of us, is just living our lives. As Russel says in his director’s note, “it’s my sincere hope that you’ll look at the stage tonight and see a play about something you know.” Yes, Mr. Russell, we see something we all know too well from these past 20 months - we need kinship and crave the intimacy of friends. As the play says, “We all know something is eternal. And it ain’t houses, and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth…and it ain’t even the stars.”
It’s a return to the theatre for the experiences that make us human.
“Our Town” runs Sept. 29 (preview), Sept. 30-Oct. 3, 2021 at the Patricia Corbett Theater, CCM Village, University of Cincinnati. For ticket information call (513) 556-4183 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shawn Maus is a screenwriter, television producer, theatre director, and old-time radio enthusiast. A number of his screenplays have been optioned and/or are under development. He is also a director for commercials, industrial videos and a voice over actor. He has been a reviewer for LCT since 2015.