“There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
– the Stage Manager in Our Town
First off, all male actors in Artistry’s revival of the Great American Play, Our Town, are absolutely crackerjack. They and the rest of the ensemble embody the early 20th century post-Victorian look and sensibility palpably. But it’s hard not to become acutely aware in this production of the special insights Thornton Wilder brought to its women. It may sound cliche, but it’s true. The gay classic American playwrights—Williams, Wilder, Inge, and Albee—were continually noted for the great roles they wrote for women.
Victorian? you may ask. She wasn’t American of course, but the British Queen’s fiercely traditional ethos made a monumental impact on the world and Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winner radiates that. Even parochial, isolated Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire lived in the snug security thereof. Whether Artistry director Benjamin addresses that aspect outright or by instinct, he and his actors are nonetheless, right on target.
Our Town ends just a bit before Woodrow Wilson broke his promise not to enter World War I. So it’s an innocent period of trust. What’s fascinating is that Wilder’s private life was quite the opposite,* yet his fealty to that idyllic small town harmony, has triggered guffaws for decades. Some fools even said things like “he was denying his sexuality.” But director Benjamin McGovern rescues this drama milestone from snickering naysayers.
A major element that made Our Town that was so very off center for the late ’30s was its very minimal staging where action played on small town, streets, a drug store, two homes, and a church, are presented minimalistically so that chairs, ladders, planks, and the like represent the details of the location. There are no set flats or other structures that reflect those places realistically. You have to use your imagination. You imagine the garden, the peas the mothers are shelling by mime, and the street that we’re made aware has shifted from horse-drawn to motor vehicles during the decade span wherein the play takes place. You accept the audience being addressed directly at points. For Broadway especially, with its penchant for striking sets reflecting places directly, this spare concept was extraordinary and put the audience focus on the characters.
This was a paradox because the unorthodox concept of how the play is presented to the audience is congealed in a traditional world view that permeates poignantly through the concerns and values built organically into the characters. Wilder is profoundly sympathetic to those values.
The Artistry production subverts this a bit with by casting the lead role of the narrator, traditionally played by a man, whom the playwright dubs “the Stage Manager”, as a woman. In that role, a splendid Linda Kelsey beguiles with an ease that is authoritative, compassionate, and a bit phantasmic without being odd. It’s yet another great performances by a woman who is a television legend with several Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. She bucks the stereotype that television actors cannot be great stage actors. Kelsey is one of the best.
The heart of Our Town beats to the relationship between George and Emily. We see them evolve as childhood neighbors into husband and wife. Artistry’s interracial casting may not reflect the intolerance that would likely have occurred with an actual interracial relationship at the time and place but the essence of the characters are beautifully grasped by actor of color Jelani Pitcher, and white actress Brianna Joy Ford.
This wondrously matched pair is touching as they reveal their miscommunication as teens and the subsequent forgiveness that transpires. George has the play’s most dramatic moment and Pitcher manifests that to wrenching perfection.
It is Emily who unfolds as the play’s protagonist, and you’ll seldom see the iconic role better played than by Ford. She bravely probes the girl-woman’s volatility. It’s a superb evocation of human nature itself—of how we respond and react to life with whatever limited information we have at a given time, only to rue our all-too-certain opinions and impressions when Fate ultimately holds her mirror to our face. Indeed, this is the human condition. Wilder reminds us sadly that we often take too long to see the obvious. Ford brings that home numinously.
The roles of the mothers are the very picture of matronly strength and are crisp historical period performances that have unsettling power over those of us with actual first-hand memories of great grandmothers who were actually born before the 20th century. If you’re fortunate enough to have such memories you may well be struck, as I was, by the uncanny portrayals of Adelin Phelps as Mrs. Gibbs and Elise Langer as Mrs. Webb. This is not a word I use very often, but they are amazing in that way.
Another notable in the same vein is Patty Matthews as the sentimental wedding guest, Mrs. Soames. Another paradox: though she’s sentimental, something generally thought of as vacuous, she genuinely serves as a genuine spiritual portal into the wonder of marriage. Why do we cry at weddings? It’s a simple, yet profound question. Soames’s passage, delivered movingly by Matthews, is a classic in its own right.
The entire ensemble moves crisply from scene to scene like a film: one of those out-of-the-box elements that would have been more avant-garde than mainstream in the ’30s. A harbinger of what Wilder will expand toward in the 1940s with the even more structurally transgressive The Skin of Our Teeth.
Ansa Akyea and Jason Ballweber are appealingly sturdy evocations of small town fatherhood. They bring a lot love to Dr.Gibbs and Mr. Webb. In stark contrast, Craig Johnson renders a painfully accurate portrait of the consuming nature of bitterness matched with alcohol abuse. He sketches a flesh and blood portrait of Simon Stimson, the town’s church choir director, to tragic effect. Wilder created an unfortunate man cursed with profound sensitivity and potential insight, but who fell between the cracks. Johnson nails it.
Ed Gleeman’s costumes and Paul Bigot’s wigs and makeup are period perfect.
*The Lavender review of Girl Friday’s 2019 production of Wilder’s other Pulitzer Prize-winner for Drama, The Skin of Our Teeth, muses on the gay playwright-fiction writer’s personal life.
Through Sept. 29
Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington