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Review: ‘Our Town’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Thornton Wilder’s New Hampshire creation, Grover’s Corners, sits on some of the oldest rock in the world: “a shelf of Devonian basalt” crossed with “vestiges of Mesozoic shale,” we’re told. The oldest headstones in the cemetery are from the late 1600s, and filled with names that still populate Grover’s Corners in 1901, when the play Our Town is set. There is nothing so solid as rock.

Using a mix of puppets and human actors, Director Aaron Posner tries to puzzle out what Wilder has been trying to get at for the last 80 years: can we ever appreciate something so transient as human life? One day before a wedding, a young woman eats breakfast with her mother; one day after the wedding, she eats breakfast with her husband and everything in their world has changed. One day before a wedding, the oldest headstones in the cemetery are from the late 1600s and Grover’s Corner is built on ancient rock; one day after, and this is all still true. Human life dervishes its way through evolution and extinction; yet nothing at all changes in the larger arc of time. We are born, we grow into adults who fever through love and despair, we may or may not ever marry, and we die, and it’s in a blink to the universe. While we may never appreciate how quickly life passes us by, because we’re too busy wasting it, the same can be said of the world itself, which never gets a chance to relax into knowing any one of us before we disappear forever.

Jon Hudson Odam. Photograph courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

Posner has gathered an exceptional cast of actors to populate his Grover’s Corners.* Jon Hudson Odom’s Stage Manager is wry and generous. Tony Nam (Mr. Gibbs) and Todd Scofield (Mr. Webb) are ever the fathers – perfect ideals, patiently guiding, kindly correcting, always coming or going from their respective houses. It’s the women who are given richer veins to mine. It’s the women who seem to recognize the cycles of impermanence. (Mrs. Gibb wants her husband to seize moments as they come, knowing that life isn’t a carousel at all, but a steady quick march; Mrs. Webb worries that she hasn’t spent enough time preparing her daughter for life as a married woman – worries because she knows there never will be enough time.) And it’s the women who understand what needs to be done, even after death. (“Sh! dear. Just wait and be patient,” Mrs. Gibbs tells Emily.) Megan Anderson as Mrs. Gibbs, especially in her Act III moments, is heartbreakingly wonderful. And Andrea Harris Smith, as Mrs. Webb, fills each moment on stage with intelligence and warmth.

[* This is a purposeful identification on my part: Posner’s Grover’s Corners doesn’t adhere to Wilder’s stage directions. Wilder wants “No curtain. No scenery.” Scenic Designer Misha Kachman gives us the facades of the Gibbs’ house and the Webbs’. This may be in service of some of the puppetry needs. If you are seeing this show to collect it with other Our Towns you’ve seen, you will accidentally do a disservice to the work Posner is doing here. Wilder was announcing something new and vital to American theater when he eschewed a set entirely; Posner, 80 years later, focuses his spareness on the cast instead. We’re all puppets of one kind or another, he seems to be suggesting, with a puppet’s permanence. Additionally, Posner’s sound designer for this production, Sarah O’Halloran, brilliantly uses on-stage Foley effects, which also wonderfully echoes Wilder’s minimalist wishes.]

Megan Anderson and Andrea Harris Smith. Photograph courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

We need to talk about the puppets. Aaron Cromie has designed some wonderful and beautiful puppets to share the stage with the human actors. Each puppet is brought marvelously to life, too. But I feel you’re either the kind of person who is going to be endlessly charmed by this invention that Posner introduced in this production, making the metaphorical (we’re all, in a sense, puppets to existence) literal; or, you’re going to be like me and struggle with how you feel about the puppets for several days afterwards. I wasn’t able to fall in love with them; however, they also didn’t significantly inhibit my love of this production, either. And this is a production you can fall in love with.

Megan Anderson, Jon Hudson Odom, Andrea Harris Smith. Photograph courtesy of Olney Theatre Center.

In Act I of Our Town, Doc Gibbs helps bring twin babies into the world. In Act II, we watch Emily Webb (a perfect Cindy De La Cruz) and George Gibb (William Vaughan) spar, fall in love, court, and marry. And the third act, “I reckon you can guess what that’s about,” the Stage Manager tells us. Even prepared for the inevitable – plays have last acts, just like human lives do – even knowing how the play ends, even knowing Emily’s closing soliloquy by heart, I still found myself stifling tears and sniffling loudly before enjoying two quick sobs as the lights dimmed and people shuffled up to leave. “They don’t understand, do they?” Emily asks Mrs. Gibbs. “No, dear. They don’t.”

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions.

Our Town plays through November 12, 2017 at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

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