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Staging a classic American drama can be rife with pitfalls. On the one hand, it can be déjà vu all over again; on the other, the update can render the original version unrecognizable and completely removed from the playwright’s vision. With few exceptions, Terry Nolan has directed his talented company in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town in Old City” and has managed to avoid either extreme. He delivers a moving, evocative and utterly charming evening of theater.
The show begins in Arden’s Haas Theatre for Act I. The audience and cast move across the street to Christ Church for Act II, which ends with a wedding, and the evening finishes back in the Haas for Act III.
Wilder kept it simple
Conceptually Nolan’s vision for the production is somewhat flawed. Our Town is set in a small New Hampshire town in the early 20th Century. The script calls for no scenery: Wilder wanted to examine a community of people and their relationships in the simplest of settings. In three acts, the audience witnesses the richness of daily life– with its rhythms of worries, losses and joys. Wilder wrote Our Town for a proscenium theater, and he used theatrical effects to underscore the difference between the theatrical and “real life.”
By staging his production in different spaces, Nolan has compromised the simplicity of Wilder’s vision. Our Town becomes Old City/Philadelphia and, in the process, becomes somewhat weighed down by production values. Staging the wedding scene at the end of Act II in Christ Church is a wonderful dramatic effect, but playing the rest of the act in the main aisle and on the altar makes for serious sightline and traffic problems. Having a different Philadelphia church choir sing at each performance makes for joyful music and builds community, but it clashes with Wilder’s choir in the script, whose director keeps urging them to sing “quieter.”
An extraordinary cast
Fortunately, Nolan has assembled an extraordinarily talented ensemble of 30 actors. The leads as well as the minor characters are exceptional. Peterson Townsend (as George Gibbs) and Rebecca Blumhagen (Emily Webb) make a lovely pair of young lovers. As their parents, Kevyn Morrow and Sherri L. Edelen (Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs) and Greg Wood and JoAnna Rhinehart (Mr. and Mrs. Webb) are solidly grounded citizens of Grover’s Corners and yet delightfully quirky and interesting individuals. Frederick Andersen as Simon Stimson, Carla Belver as Mrs. Soames, and Brian Anthony Wilson have memorable moments as some of the local characters of the town.
Perhaps the play’s most difficult part is that of The Stage Manager, and while Eric Hissom’s portrayal seemed a bit too cool and detached, almost Brechtian, he does manage to direct the audience’s attention and all the moving about with efficiency.
To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another eview by Anne R. Fabbri, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
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