Le Petit's 'Our Town' profoundly touches hearts with deceptive simplicity

October 5, 2015


There is a paradox about Thornton Wilder's classic American drama, "Our Town," that reminds me of one of the late Yogi Berra's famous mangled maxims. Of a popular restaurant, Berra once declared, "No one goes there anymore. It's always too crowded."

"Our Town" was once so popular that its licensing agency declared that barely a night went by that the show wasn't being performed on some stage somewhere. Today, however, most of our familiarity with the show comes not from professional productions, but from amateur high school drama club presentations, or from long ago encounters reading it in an English class.

As a result, the current staging, which is opening the new season at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, is a refreshing rediscovery. Though not perfect, the production satisfyingly makes the case that "Our Town" deserves its ranking as the Great American Drama. Other great works would certainly follow, but it was Wilder who blazed the trail for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and so many others.

In all its deceptive simplicity, director Maxwell Williams presents a traditional staging that includes expressive details amid the pantomime actions of the actors.

The groundbreaking concept from its 1938 premiere of performing the play on a mostly bare stage, using no curtain and no scenery, may no longer be new. In that bareness, however, Williams and his cast cut to the core of the timeless emotions of the play. In the seeming ordinariness of it all, nothing much happens in Grover's Corners. Nothing but life itself.

Our guide to that life in the town is the Stage Manager. In casting Carol Sutton in the role, Williams establishes the entire tone of the production. While the Stage Manager is often portrayed as a God-like overseer of the village, Sutton supplants the typically stiff Yankee reserve with neighborly, distinctly Southern warmth. Never falsely sentimental, she captures the omnipresent power of the part while remaining loving and genuinely funny. It is a smartly rich performance.

Some of the more quaint lines of the script elicit more humor today than in the past, and while Williams handles those moments tongue firmly in cheek, he doesn't allow a modern post-ironic cynicism to invade the mood.

Indeed, there is no need for that, as Wilder himself didn't write a syrupy story. There is a gentle but critical bite to his view of village life. The town's treatment of Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choirmaster, is one example. Played with rich intensity by Leon Contavesprie, the character is seen as scandalous by the gossips around town, while the community at large lives by an unspoken agreement to ignore his problems. In the end, the results are tragic.

The other leading roles are generally strongly played. Ann Dalrymple is touching as the sympathetic Mrs. Gibbs. She well captures one of the play's key themes of dreams deferred.

Silas Cooper carries a serene authority as Dr. Gibbs. His moment quietly correcting his son, George, about helping his mother is particularly gripping.

Michelle Benet brings a sharper edge to Mrs. Webb, while James Howard Wright gives Mr. Webb an easygoing attitude and wise spirit.

The central focus of the play revolves around the relationship between George and Emily, as the audience watches them as high school students falling in love, eventually marrying, and facing life with all its "awful and wonderful" moments.

Though they make an attractive couple, Greg Chandler Maness and Sara Minerd are too old to be convincing as teenagers. While they have enough of a spark between them, they do not convey enough of the innocence of first love in the second act. By the emotionally moving finale, however, the sense of loss from each is palpable.

The rest of the cast adds nice color and detail in smaller and ensemble roles.

"Our Town" is not a piece to be rushed. Williams sets a pace, especially in the first act, which invites the audience to slow itself down, and enter into the rhythms of small-town life. The effect pays off well, bringing rich rewards in the final two acts.

With the generally bare stage, in which Evan Adamson's set designs consist of little more than a few chairs, a couple of tables, and a pair of folding stepladders, attention is strongly drawn to other production elements.

Alison Parker's costumes are off-the-rack serviceable, generally fitting the characters. The outfits chosen for Emily, however, are the exception, fitting neither the character nor the time period. Prancing around in an immodest pair of too-short and too-tight lace shorts, she looked like she was working Main Street. The loose dress of the second act was cut so high that George might've been able to see the lights of lower Broadway.

Mandi Wood's lighting is atmospheric and focuses the action well. Fitz Patton's sound designs are assets to the production adding subtle detail without becoming overwhelming.

At one point, Sutton's character cheerfully describes what will be included in a time capsule being placed in the cornerstone of a new building, to be opened "in 1,000 years." Whether anything from our culture will be remembered 1,000 years from now is questionable, but for now this well-conceived production shows just how timeless a work "Our Town" remains today.

Admission: $35-$50. For information, call 504.522.2081, or visit the theater's website.

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