Arts » Theater

Wilder at Heart

Porthouse envisions Our Town as you've never seen it before.

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The actors (Elizabeth Ann Townsend, left, and Monica Bell) carry Our Town.
  • The actors (Elizabeth Ann Townsend, left, and Monica Bell) carry Our Town.

Sometimes you are fortunate enough to encounter a familiar old classic that has been given such a new and startling spin that you're compelled to think, "So that's what it's all about!" Pick up The Barbra Streisand Album and cue up "Cry Me a River." It's a shopworn tune that has been mouthed by countless singers over the decades, but never have you heard it sung with such raw emotion and piercing vengeance.

Or hie yourself to Porthouse Theatre's outdoor venue and check out the umpty-umpth production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. This is no sleepy reading of the play in which you probably had a role in high school. Director Matthew Earnest delivers a clean and contemporary take on the denizens of Grover's Corners that is so amusing and insightful, you half-expect Thornton's specter to emerge from the surrounding woods and thunder: "Yes, dammit, that's what I meant!"

Our Town is both a tribute to the homely pleasures of small-town America and a rebuke to every person who doesn't appreciate the magical daily moments of tenderness, love, or simple consciousness that pass by in such a rush. While Wilder points out a few human foibles, this show is less concerned with revealing the weaknesses of common folk than on leaving a wake-up call for awareness of life's glories while we still have them.

As virtually everyone knows, all the action is centered around two houses, where the Gibbs and Webb families are having birthdays, stringing beans, hooking up, and finally getting horizontal in the cemetery next to their ancestors. But in this staging, there's not a rickety porch, flowered plate, or pot lid to be found. Earnest has plopped his cast down on a bare, black stage, with nothing but a couple tables and a few chairs to help carve out playing areas. This spare and propless design has the bracing effect of concentrating all attention on the script and the actors, and that is where this production truly shines.

John Woodson plays the Stage Manager with rumpled affability, artfully setting up scenes and then gently interrupting the participants to move the story along (after all, the play spans 12 years literally and an eternity figuratively). Using winks and roving eye contact to bond with the audience, Woodson warms up the crowd and creates an atmosphere where Wilder's humor can emerge in full bloom. The laughter of instant recognition greets Mrs. Webb (a beaming and pitch-perfect Elizabeth Ann Townsend) when she good-naturedly explains why she doesn't allow her daughter Emily to read while eating a meal: "I'd rather have my children healthy than bright."

As the romantic young couple Emily and George, Emily Pote and Ryan Stutz are as plain and endearingly naive as figures in a Norman Rockwell portrait. Their "important conversation" over strawberry sodas is flush with the blushing hopefulness of youth, and when Emily is trembling through a panic attack on the morning of her wedding to George, the blend of humor and sympathy rings absolutely true.

Although Monica Bell (Mrs. Gibbs) and Rohn Thomas (Doc Gibbs) don't fully succeed in generating the familiar chemistry of a long-married couple, each has telling scenes with others. When Thomas' Doc quietly chides his son George about helping his mother with wood-chopping chores, you want to grab an ax and go split a few logs yourself. And Bell is sadly radiant in the final act, motionless but eyes glistening, as she tries to teach Emily the ropes of being a corpse.

Virtually all the smaller roles are handled with panache. Mark Farr never overplays the lush Simon Stimson and is hilarious in the small scene where he's lording it over his choir. (Of their singing, he finally grudgingly admits, "That's better. But it ain't no miracle.") And Christopher Seiler as Editor Webb creates some amusing tension in his prenuptial chat with soon-to-be son-in-law George, although the old man's clear distaste for his breakfast food is a bit confusing.

Under Earnest's direction, this Our Town has as many laughs as a Neil Simon play, but the enduring themes are never given short shrift. Likewise, the attention to performance detail is admirable. This is especially evident in the laser-like precision with which all props are pantomimed, a technique that helps reflect the imminent unearthliness of the participants. Earnest also contributes to the overall ethereal ambiance by often having his actors play at oblique angles, rather than eye-to-eye.

Other than the Stage Manager, the entire cast is dressed in neutral-hued period outfits, and each is barefoot. Be it a costuming convenience or a meaning-laden strategy to, say, symbolize vulnerability at the root of the human condition, the shoelessness works as effectively as everything else here.

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