Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, has long been considered a classic American play. It was originally produced in 1938 and continues to be performed in countless regional, community and school productions across the country. Its idealized view of a typical, small New England town at the turn of the last century a town where citizens have no need to lock their doors at night, and where everybody has a good word to say to (and about) the neighbors has not lost its ability to appeal to our national nostalgia for a slower, simpler and more civil life.
When the play was first staged, some of its theatrical elements were unconventional for the era. There is no scenery, and the set pieces consist only of a few tables and chairs. Pantomime is used extensively to enact the daily life of the town. And the principal character of the Stage Manager, who also takes on various other roles throughout the proceedings, talks directly to the audience. Wilder was dissatisfied with what he felt were the unimaginative, stilted theatrical productions of his time and wanted to provide the audience with a more informal, intimate and compelling human drama.
Under the direction of Katrina Ploof, the Mad Cow Theatre Company has mounted an affectionate and palatable rendition of the work. The company gets most of the tonalities of the script just about right: The ordinary world of breakfasts, schoolwork, town gossip, weddings and funerals that washes over the audience is achingly familiar. And even if the dramas of our own day have a harsher edge or a more complicated narrative, Our Town constantly provides us with a vague sense of recollection, reminding us of our common humanity.
Standout performances include those of Sarah French as Emily Webb and Craig Weiskerger as George Gibbs. Their innocent and respectful courtship is portrayed without cynicism or kitsch, harkening back to a time when being "friends with benefits" meant carrying someone's schoolbooks or helping each other with algebra homework. Peg O'Keef is wonderful as the Stage Manager, a calm and loving presence who knows all the characters' feelings and is simultaneously aware of their past, present and future.
Overall, the play lives up to its standing as an American masterpiece. But watching its strange third act makes one wonder if the playwright isn't playing fast and loose with his notions of what it means to animate our own daily lives. It takes place in the Grover's Corners cemetery, as the community's dearly departed comment upon humanity's inability to see things clearly or live intelligently. Here, Wilder appears to be knocking the same middle class populace whose merits he has extolled so reverently heretofore. It's an odd coda to a work that immortalizes and hails small-town virtues.
Mad Cow Theatre
Through July 24
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