“Our Town”

photo by John Lamb

Play: “Our Town”

Group: Stray Dog Theatre

Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue

Dates: June 17, 18, 19, 24, 25, 26

Tickets: $18-$20; contact 314-865-1995 or HYPERLINK "http://www.straydogtheatre.org" www.straydogtheatre.org

Story: Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, is much like many American villages at the turn of the 20th century. It has a couple of thousand residents, most of whom know each other. Our narrator, the Stage Manager, acts as our guide through three acts that take place between 1901 and 1913, acts that can roughly be titled “Life,” “Marriage” and “Death.” The narrator describes various vignettes that play out before the audience, and occasionally references future events that will shape the lives of the town’s citizens.

Interwoven throughout the three acts are familiar faces: The milkman Howie, genial Dr. Gibbs, Mr. Webb the newspaper publisher, the newspaper delivery boy, the funeral home owner, the constable, the alcoholic church organist, the boring history professor and the families of the Gibbs and the Webbs, including son George Gibbs and daughter Emily Webb, who become childhood sweethearts and eventually husband and wife until death they do part.

Highlights: Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 for this benevolent work that paints a positive portrait of Americana. While it alludes to changing times, with an influx of Polish immigrants and the encroachment of motorized vehicles in a town where the apothecary remembers when dogs could sleep in the middle of Main Street, it also shows the timeless bonds of love, friendship and the industrious work ethic that shaped the development of these United States.

Director Gary Bell, who always adheres faithfully to the spirit of the playwrights whose works he produces, maintains that fidelity in this affecting, if also dated, prism of a kinder, gentler time. He paces his large and diverse cast gracefully through three smoothly paced acts, and extracts satisfactory performances from most of the cast and exemplary ones from a handful of key players in major roles.

Other Info: David Gibbs describes his part as the Stage Manager as “the role of his life,” and if so he’s done it handsome justice. Gibbs is easygoing, comfortable and respectful as he interacts with the audience while also jumping into a bit part here and there in the proceedings. His casual, wise approach sets the right tone for the play’s humanity and poignancy in both its humorous and melancholy scenes.

Michelle Hand is able to convey in a few well-modulated lines and an endearing look here and there the way of life in this quaint New England village, down to the specific accent of the area. As Mrs. Gibbs, she longs to fulfill her lifetime dream to see Paris, yet she never mistakes the priorities of her life, namely her husband and children. Leslie Wobbe is strong and resilient as her next-door neighbor, Mrs. Webb, a woman who doesn’t flinch when her daughter looks at an old picture and says, “Mama, you were pretty!,” maintaining her stoic demeanor.

There’s very fine work by John Reidy as the town’s newspaper editor, who assures residents that the (minor) news of importance to them will appear in the next edition. Mark Abels is the patriarchal physician, Dr. Gibbs, who casually chats with Howie the milkman (the reliable Charles Heuvelman in one of his trademark character roles), offers fatherly advice to son George and continually dismisses Mrs. Gibbs’ quest for travel with one of his convenient bromides.

Colleen Backer and Kevin Boehm are fetching as once-and-future lovers Emily Webb and George Gibbs. Backer is an accomplished pro who adds subtle touches to a performance, such as a change in her girlish gait from a deliberate tempo in the first act to a more determined stroll in the second, while Boehm is delightful in several scenes, as a dutiful son or a panicked groom shortly before his wedding.

The solid supporting cast includes Viktor Freesmeier as two talkative paper boys, Payton Sciarratta as George’s effervescent sister Rebecca, Leo Ramsey as Emily’s adventurous brother Wally, Dan McGee as the exasperating professor, Chuck Lavazzi as the steady funeral parlor operator, Casey Boland as an inquisitive audience member, Jan Niehoff as town busybody Mrs. Soames, Michael Monsey as the well-meaning but troubled church organist Mr. Stimson and Richard Brinkman as the constable.

Justin Been’s haunting sound design immeasurably aids the production, and the costumes by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley hearken back to a much different era. Tyler Duenow’s lighting suitably complements the proceedings on the minimalist set suggested by Wilder and implemented by Bell with the notable assistance of props master Jay Hall, who use ladders and chairs in a most efficient manner.

While “Our Town” is a trip down yesteryear lane, there’s enough lasting continuity in its main themes to strike a familiar chord with modern audiences.

Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.