Saturday, March 25, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Thorton Wilder's Our Town at Studio Theatre Long Island by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Thorton Wilder's Our Town at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Our Town
Written by Thorton Wilder
Directed by Frank Dispigno
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
Reviewed 3/24/17

We all know the dates of major historical events and sometimes we are lucky to have books available written by those who were involved providing context and perspective to those moments that influenced the society in which we currently live. But it is rarer to obtain glimpses into the daily lives and struggles of everyday people facing challenges, dreams, and the eventuality of death. The Stage Manager tells us Our Town is such a story. It is divided into three basic parts. In "Daily Life," the Stage Manager introduces us to the fictitious town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire (population 2,642 people), telling us where the main buildings of the town are located and who some of the people are who reside there. The second part entitled "Love & Marriage" occurs a few years later when George Gibbs and Emily Webb are preparing to get married. They suffer from marriage jitters and we learn about the moment they acknowledged their love for one another. The third part of the play, "Death & Dying," takes place in a cemetery. We come to understand that most people do not appreciate life. They spend and waste time as if they had a million years to live failing to appreciate the joy that can be found in simple everyday activities. The Stage Manager intends to place the book Our Town into a time capsule so future generations will know how we lived.

Our Town was first presented on January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey before opening on Broadway on February 4, 1938 at Henry Miller's Theatre (later moved to the Morosco Theatre) and closing on November 19, 1938 after 336 performances. Thorton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this work in 1938. There were four subsequent Broadway revivals of Our Town at City Center (January 10-29, 1944 - 24 performances), ANTA Playhouse (November 27-December 27, 1969 - 3 previews and 36 performances), Lyceum Theatre (November 9, 1988-April 2, 1989 - 27 previews and 136 performances), and Booth Theatre (November 22, 2002-January 26, 2003 - 15 previews and 59 performances). The 1989 Broadway Revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival. An interesting side note is that in 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave." That fact raises the issue of whether the message of this play is, in its essence, uplifting (enabling those who see it to better appreciate every moment of their lives and to truly pay attention to those people sharing it with you), or depressing (people are so busy distracting themselves with worthless, time-consuming endeavors they think are meaningful until the day they die). Mrs. Gibbs never did get to spend her legacy money on a trip to Paris, France because Doc Gibbs was concerned seeing Paris might make him discontent with Grover's Corners. I guess, in the end, the choice is up to you. You can appreciate the sunrise and the birds and see where a strawberry ice cream soda will lead or you can become depressed at the monotony and sameness of everyday existence. Millions of ancestors setting out to live two by two leading boring lives, which the Stage Manager as Minister (and perhaps The Mind Of God) says is entertaining "once in a thousand times."  

The strength of this production lies with the very powerful performances of Evan Donnellan as George Gibbs, and Nicole Intravia as Emily Webb. They have a great rapport and their bonding at the ice cream parlor is an extremely tender moment. In anticipation of showing us how their relationship got started, the Stage Manager tells the audience, "I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young. And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn't quite see the street you were on and didn't quite hear everything that was said to you. You're just a little bit crazy. Will you remember that, please?" In deciding to take over Uncle Luke's farm now and not go away to State Agricultural College for three years, George reflects that "new people aren't any better than old ones" and that there is no reason to risk losing a possible life-partner you love by going away to college. He asks Emily if she might be able to love him if he stops being conceited and stuck-up to which Emily confesses she has always loved him. George reflects, "I think that once you've found a person that you're fond of...I mean a person who's fond of you, too, and likes you enough to be interested in your character...Well, I think that's just as important as college is, and even more so. That's what I think." At the end of their conversation, George realizes he doesn't have the money to pay for the strawberry ice cream sodas and asks the store owner to give him a short time to run home to get the cash. Reflecting the trust existing in a small town where nobody locks their doors, the store owner tells George, "I will trust you for 10 years - not a day more!"

Gail Merzer Behrens is outstanding as the adventurous Mrs. Julia Gibbs, who sings in the Choir of the Congregationalist Church (They leave LOUD to the Methodists) and believes that "once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don't talk English and don't even want to." Frank ("Doc") Gibbs, well-played by Gary Tifeld, has a very moving moment with his teenage son explaining to him how his actions have caused his mother to be unduly burdened. Kathleen Eberhardt is a fine actress, who as Mrs. Myrtle Webb, has trouble having "the birds and bees" discussion with her daughter. When Emily asks if she is good-looking enough to attract boys, Mrs. Webb tells her, "you're pretty enough for all normal purposes." Michael Cesarano more than holds his own as Charles Webb, Editor of Grover's Corners Sentinel, which comes out twice a week. Rob Gold was hilarious as Professor Willard, and Daniel Schinina was quite charismatic as Joe Crowell and Sam Craig. Also worthy of note are Tina Lauro, who played Mrs. Carter, and Becky Neuhedel, who as Mrs. Louella Soames, provided a bit of comic relief at George & Emily's wedding. Scott Hofer, a very respected presence in the Long Island Theater Community, was the Stage Manager, and Tom Brown, another talented local actor sold concessions during intermission so we were surrounded by talent all around. There wasn't a weak link in the cast. Everyone performed to perfection. 

Our Town was the Seinfeld and reality television show of its day. It's Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb asking the milkman for more bottles than they originally ordered because relations are unexpectedly coming over. It's George Gibbs throwing soap at his sister Rebecca when both are getting ready to go to school. It's Doc Gibbs returning home late after delivering two babies in Polishtown (across the tracks where the new Catholic Church was built). It's gossip over how Simon Stinson (the choir director and church organist played by Eric Clavell) continues to have drinking problems and has been in "a peck of trouble." Although the play is basically about nothing except people living their everyday lives, it will still give you much to think about and have a lasting impact on how you view life. Two different reflections on life are provided by Simon Stinson and Emily Webb from their final resting places. Simon says, "That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To always be at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another." After having re-lived a portion of a single day of her life, Emily observed, "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize all that was going on we never noticed...Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world, Grover's Corners...Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking...and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up. Oh Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

Whether or not you leave agreeing all human beings are blind people walking around in a cloud of ignorance unaware of the preciousness of life, you will be thoroughly entertained by this production of Our Town, which plays at Studio Theatre Long Island through April 9, 2017.  Tickets are $25.00. Reserve them by visiting For more information, call 631-226-8400.

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