nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
October 17, 2012
Like most of the dusty hardcover books that are force-fed to unsuspecting high schoolers, Our Town is universally known and often hazily remembered. Thornton Wilder's three-act chronicle of life in Grover's Corners, N.H. at the turn of the century has a genteel and steady rhythm, and a seeming sheen of nostalgia for a simpler time. Which is why it's easy to forget that Our Town is also something else entirely: a bold theatrical experiment with no scenery, little plot and a loose structure, at the heart of which are themes of death, discontentment, and the paralysis of ordinary life.
But in Tongue in Cheek's uncommonly warm production of the 1938 play at Theater 54 @ Shetler Studios, Our Town radiates most vividly when it lingers on the small moments. Thanks to a universally excellent cast led by director Jake Lipman (who also plays The Stage Manager), this version of Wilder's tale successfully argues that even an uneventful life is full of meaning.
While many of the citizens of Grover's Corners show up in various vignettes, the play revolves mainly around the families of Doc Gibbs and Editor Webb, whose son George and daughter Emily will eventually fall in love and marry. The evening is facilitated by the Stage Manager, who introduces the characters and also gives some background information on the small New England town (population: 2,642.) Over one day in the first act, we see glimpses of breakfast, school, homework time, and choir practice at the church (led by a wonderful Lynn Berg as the drunk organist.) Act two winds its way through the wedding of Emily and George, and act three lands us in the cemetery nine years later, with those who've died in the meantime sitting in chairs and marveling at the obliviousness of the living.
As Stage Manger, Lipman is the play's empathic center, and her cheery, conversational style invites us in from the start. When she points out, early on, that a boy we've just met will die in France during World War I, she says it with enormous sadness, as if he was the son of a dear friend. Her mood often mirrors that of the town, and you can tell she's as much a part of life there as anyone else.
The play's narrative focus, though, soon belongs to Emily Webb, and here the production is blessed with a sensational performance from Shelley Little. With an offbeat and sometimes deadpan charm, Little embodies the journey of a deeply intelligent and dissatisfied woman who has few choices outside of marriage. It's not that her life turns out badly; it's just that in Little's eyes, you glimpse the realization that there could be so much more. She's helped along by Brian Roach's seductively melancholy turn as her future husband, George Gibbs. The scene in which the two fall in love, while sharing a soda at the shop, unfolds with such ease and clarity that it marks the strongest acting work of the night.
That's saying a lot, given the depth of talent on display here. The earthy Nina Leese and Kathryn Neville Browne are particular standouts as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, while A.J. Heekin shines in three minor parts. The montage at the cemetery offers a lovely bit of ensemble acting.
Wilder's aim, in Our Town, was to accent the most universal elements contained in a place where, as the Stage Manager says, "nobody very remarkable ever came out of." With careful attention to detail, and a commitment to honest storytelling, Lipman and her crew have done so, in a quite remarkable way.