'Our Town' is anytown, anytime

If you think you know Our Town, stop by the Garden Theatre for the latest version of the familiar Thornton Wilder classic. And think again.

As playwright Wilder intended, the new Beth Marshall production focuses on the basics. Props in this Grover's Corner, N.H., are just the essentials: Mismatched chairs are arranged around dining tables; others are set in loose rows for a church or graveyard scene.

Simple costumes suggest century-old styles, and the cast convincingly mimes what could have become distracting details: the milkman's horse and cart, the soda jerk at his counter, even the "school books" George Gibbs (Jesse Lenoir) carries for Emily Webb (Jennifer Bonner, a standout).

What isn't minimal is the emotional impact of the play, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1938 and a presence made unavoidable by its film, TV, Broadway and even musical interpretations, as well as the time-honored tradition of amateur school productions. Our Town is the American play, written during the Great Depression with that era's strong regionalist flavor.

But there's no sentimentality in director David Lee's Our Town, no sense of nostalgic Americana. Instead, there is humor in the sight of George and Emily flirting from across the theater (a charmingly renovated 1935 movie house) and a nod to tradition in their mothers' homely chores in invisible kitchens. What stands out is the bedrock values the characters embody — and yet, at the same time, their heartbreaking humanity.

George and Emily do marry, and, as the titles of the play's three acts reveal, real life follows. The town gossips; Mrs. Webb (Elle Vernée, pitch-perfect) confides her desire to see Paris to her neighbor (Jamie Middleton, as an amiable Mrs. Gibbs); both sets of parents give tough pep talks about responsibility after the young couple gets cold feet on their wedding day. It's all true to life, then and now, bracingly and unflinchingly portrayed.

What is more moving — and what makes this crisp, searing Our Town stay with you after the set goes dark — is the crucial gap between the characters' matter- of-fact dialogue and the passions it conceals and reveals. Set in what is, to quote Don Henley, "that same small town in each of us," Wilder's play is an ode in three seemingly plain, forthright acts, to what life is all about: living.

(Also scheduled is the special event Our Town: Winter Garden's Own Heritage, a screening of the documentary Tales From Winter Garden followed by a historical slideshow; 2 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at the Garden Theatre; free)

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