Our Town: Change comes too fast in Grover’s Corners
Kevin Bender (COL ’09) as George
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town,”a play about the little things,” as it is often described, is so ubiquitous among small theaters that one can reasonably expect any new production to be an attempt to “make it new.” The collaboration between the Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies Program and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which Vox saw yesterday as a open rehearsal screening, is no exception.
For their purposes, directors Sarah Marshall and Derek Goldman have thrown the cast list to the wind and distributed the parts of Our Town‘s two main characters among several different actors, who make a habit out of butting in or butting out mid-scene. Every actor plays the Stage Manager, the play’s narrator, even as they simultaneously play the milkman, the organist, or a mom.
The switcheroos are executed well enough, and there is enough continuity between actors that this doesn’t turn out to be the quite as distracting of a gimmick as it could have been. But with so many actors interpreting them, the main characters lose all their nuance and fail to develop. And for a play that’s in part about growing up and change, that’s a pretty flagrant failing.
In three acts, Our Town is based around the routine existences of the residents of Grover’s Corners, specifically around the daily lives of eventual love interests George Gibbs and Emily Webb, and their families. The first act is deliberately humdrum. George and Emily go to school, their mothers string green beans, and choir practice takes place before a disgruntled organist (delightful played by Jimmy Dailey (COL `10)).
The Stage Manager also narrates quite a bit about the town’s culture and mundane history. Any scene dominated by the ensemble-Stage Manager is one in which Marshall and Goldman’s choice to divvy up his lines between the fifteen members of the cast pays off. Letting the townspeople narrate their own lives instead of relegating that job to a single omnipotent character impresses upon us how invested in their mundane lives the people of Grover’s Corners are.
This matters a lot, because for Thornton’s play to ultimately be a lesson in appreciating “the little things” and not just a tedious ode to “the little things,” its cast has to be really endearing. And that’s where multiple-actor roles get this interpretation into trouble. Because so many different actors play George and Emily, the complexity any given actor gives either one of the characters dies out every time the actors switch places, leaving us little to empathize with.
What survives bewteen transitions is sort of George- or Emily-pâté. George is always full of boyish wonder no matter which actor plays him (and no one in the cast makes for a particularly bad George or Emily), but each new disappointment (learning his father disapproves of how he acts toward his mother; learning that Emily finds him stuck-up) feels like his first. Every actor seems to be starting over from scratch, playing a feeling rather than a whole character.
And Emily fares worse. The precocious and pretentious class treasurer of the second act (which takes place three years after the first act, and reveals snippets of the story of George and Emily’s love and marriage) is nowhere to be found in the final act, when a new actress plays her as motherly, maudlin, and nervous.
The ensemble acting is especially disappointing when an actor who makes for a particularly endearing character (like Kevin Bender (COL `09), who as George is charmingly oblivious to Emily’s flirtations in a scene in which they look at the moon together) never reappears as that character for the rest of the play.
The best scenes in the play are, after all, the ones where the actors stay put, and its best characters are the ones who are portrayed by a single actor the entire time, like George and Emily’s parents. Myrtle Webb (Hillary Jones, Ellington `12), for instance, gets off to a shaky start, but on her daughter’s wedding day, gives one of the play’s best soliloquys. But it’s only as touching as it is because we’ve watched her anxiety about her daughter burgeon for the entire play. Even the bit characters—such as the woman who cries throughout Emily and George’s wedding and the milkman—are reminders of how wonderful a character can be when a single actor is allowed full reign over the role.
The play is a technical success—the sparse lighting and properties do Thornton’s desire to make his play about people, not things, proud. The five junior high actors from Ellington hold their own against a familiar Georgetown crowd, and in some cases best them (DeAndré Baker, Ellington ’10, makes a damn good milkman, and he and Chris Jones, Ellington ’10, make for some of the best Georges).
The play is ultimately very good at communicating the feelings it ought to—nostalgia, wistfulness, innocence, loss—but without compelling characters expressing those feelings, any empathy you leave the theater with will wear off sooner than you think.
The play is running today and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Davis Center. General admission is $12, staff, faculty and seniors can get in for $10 and students tickets are $5.
Photo by Hilary Nakasone