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Our Town: Theater Review - Ladue News: Arts & Entertainment

Our Town: Theater Review

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Posted: Monday, September 16, 2013 4:32 pm | Updated: 4:38 pm, Mon Sep 16, 2013.

Story: The stage manager welcomes the audience to the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, New Hamsphire, and introduces us to various residents who make up the community. The play he presents is divided into three acts, titled Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Eternity.

The primary focus of the story revolves around Emily Webb, daughter of the newspaper editor and his wife, and George Gibbs, her neighbor and the son of the town doctor and his spouse. We follow these characters during the period of 1901 to 1913, as Emily and George grow from childhood friends through their courtship, marriage and the start of their own family.

Highlights: Our Town ends in the year 1913, a century removed from the frenetic existence lived by so many people in modern society. It seems every bit of 100 years, not only in time but also in its quiet, sedate approach to life, as depicted by playwright Thornton Wilder in 1938. On the 75th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Insight Theatre Company director Tom Martin has assembled a ‘Who’s Who’ in local theater to mount a moving and marvelous rendition of Wilder’s charming classic.

Other Info: Wilder specified that sets and props be minimal for his story. Scenic designer Mark Wilson works within this proviso by having his players use the background as a giant chalkboard, on which they sketch a rendering of Grover’s Corners with churches, houses, streets and such.

Likewise, Victoria Meyer’s sound design is implemented by performers at either side of the stage improvising a door being closed, a bell being rung, etc. Jim Ryan provides the few props utilized to solid effect, and Wilson’s lighting bathes the proceedings in an almost reverential glow. Cherol Bowman Thibaut’s costumes look to be a natural fit for the time and place.

Martin’s pacing is perfect for the rhapsodic flow of Wilder’s script, which moves as gracefully as a bucolic river winding through the fictional hamlet. The three acts are leisurely but not plodding, brimming with affectingly rendered interpretations.

This isn’t a controversial place or play, but rather a wisely observant rendering by Wilder of what small-town America could have been like for a group of New Englanders. And when tragedy strikes, such as a burst appendix or a sudden, fatal bout with pneumonia, it’s recorded as a matter of fact that underscores the importance of relishing each day and each moment as precious.

Joneal Joplin is steady and sure as the sagacious Stage Manager, who speaks comfortably with the audience as he tells this time-honored tale in straightforward, poetic style. He’s quietly persuasive in the genial role, a trait that seems to permeate Martin’s cast.

John Contini and Peggy Billo as Dr. Gibbs and Julia (Hersey) Gibbs seem every bit the town physician and his loving wife, as do Alan Knoll and Amy Loui as their neighbors, newspaper publisher Charles Webb and Mrs. Webb. They converse in a natural, comfortable cadence that is one of the script’s strengths.

In the roles of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, Taylor Pietz and Jack Dryden offer most convincing performances. Pietz simply inhabits the part of young Emily, so much so that one forgets she’s an actress in her 20s and easily accepts her genuine portrayal of a young woman with a big heart, a clever mind and loads of common sense.

Her scene with Dryden at a soda fountain shop run by our omniscient Stage Manager is a wistful highlight of the production. As for Dryden, he captures George’s likability and slower growth to maturity with an ease as suitable as his loose-fitting clothes.

The expansive cast includes Michael Brightman as the unhappy, alcoholic church choir director, Donna Weinsting as the busybody town gossip, Tom Wethington as the dutiful undertaker and Austin Pierce as Mrs. Gibbs’ nephew in town for a wake after leaving years earlier to seek his fortune.

Charlie Southern and Lily Orchard do quite nicely as Emily’s younger brother Wally and George’s kid sister Rebecca, respectively. Paul Balfe is the town’s long-winded history professor, while Eric Dean White plays the amiable village constable. Braden Phillips, Robert Thibaut, Caroline Kwan, Louisa Wimmer Brown, Joe Kercher and Jim Ryan round out the talented ensemble.

Wilder’s soft-spoken idyll to his fictional town is now 75 years old and its setting more than a century in the rear-view mirror. It continues to resonate, though, with an unabashed respect and love for life that is bound to no particular era. Insight Theatre Company does Our Town simple justice with its faithful, direct rendition.

Play: Our Town

Company: Insight Theatre Company

Venue: Heagney Theatre, Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Avenue

Dates: September 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29

Tickets: $15-$30; contact insighttheatrecompany.com, brownpapertickets.com or 556-1293

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of John Lamb

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