BY SANDY STAGGS
The Pulitzer Prize –winning “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder is staple of American drama was groundbreaking in its day in 1938: an active narrator breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience that we are in a theatre at a play in three acts, the barebones approach to its staging sans scenery or props, and the pantomiming.
“Our Town” is one of those plays that can easily collapse into a boring behemoth of blubbering misery. Fortunately, the Market Theatre Company’s production avoids those pitfalls.
Under the tutelage of director Robert Fuson (last year’s Southeastern Theatre Conference winner for Best Director and director of Guerrilla Shakespeare Theatre Company’s award-winning “Never Swim Alone” that will be one of two Upstate companies representing our state at this year’s SETC community theatre festival in Knoxville, TN.) “Our Town” is engaging, formidable and quite often, most amusing.
In a novel casting choice, Jessie Davis (who actually appeared as a mime in the Market’s very first production “The Fantasticks”) plays the Stage Manager. As observer and narrator, and occasional player, Davis introduces us to the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners, Hew Hampshire and its citizens in 1901.
The stage at the Market Theatre has been removed, revealing the glorious empty shell of the historical brick building by the train tracks, and creating a blank canvas or Fuson to navigate his actors about the space, using natural barriers such as the structural wooden support posts to frame the action. Two tables and a handful of chairs are all that signify locations, primarily the homes of the two families in the story: the Gibbs and the Webb clans.
Davis, amiable and dexterous, lends a gentle, charming hand as she gives as brief history of the village. Some characters, she reveals, have their fate determined or soon will via war, disease or other natural demise.
The first act “Daily Life” concerns a normal morning in Grover’s Corners as young Joe Crowell (Trey Milstead) delivers the newspaper and Howie Newsome (Brent Smith) the milk as the Gibbs and Webbs get their children off to school. It’s just another ordinary day in this ordinary town that could be your town or any city in America.
Dr. Gibbs (Rob Gentry) and his wife, simply Mrs. Gibbs (Sarah Anderson) and their two children, the eldest George (Noah Austin) and sister Rebecca (Catherine Gray) have their morning ritual as does the Webb family: Mr. Webb (Ken Thomason), the local newspaper editor; Mrs. Webb (Casey Certain); daughter Emily (Kelsey Cornnell); and son Wally (Eli Stone).
The second act (in the play and life itself) is called “Love and Marriage,” and set some four years later. This act is also the most animated section of the drama as George and Emily, are seniors in high school and set to marry immediately after graduation, a path of natural progression of youngsters: both today and then.
Austin and Cornnell with their winsome, pure-at-heartportrayals genuinely dominate this period as their characters flirt innocently and nurture their relationship. But both have reservations and express those concerns to their parents as they stand on the precipice to the scary prospect of adulthood.
In addition, Austin shines in a very funny scene with George’s future father-in-law, an equally engaging Thomason. And Gentry (who dazzled Market Theatre audiences as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” last season) is incredibly fastidious and likeable in their dining scene, punctuating his comfortable chemistry with the delightful Anderson.
The third and final act is, rather final. Entitled “Death and Eternity,” it transpires at the cemetery nestled on the mountaintop above this sleepy hamlet. Ethereal and creepy, this act is by far the most disturbing as ghosts of characters we have met (and their ancestors) quietly roam somewhere between death and the after-life. It is here that Wilder pontificates on the meaning of it all in an existential yearning for answers.
There is some unevenness in some of the performances but all in all, the cast rises to the challenge of this extraordinary work that celebrates the mundane and ordinary moments in human existence, a universal exercise in the cyclical, predictable course that man (and woman) pursues in our communities generation after generation, proving hat little has changed since 1901.
The only thing Wilder left out was taxes.
Costumes for this production are by Bree Green, Maggie McNeil is lighting designer and Stephanie Ibbotson is Stage Manager (the real one).
“Our Town” continues Thursday- Saturday, February 14-16 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, February 17 at 3 p.m. at The Market Theatre Company, 110 Federal Street in Anderson. Call (864) 729-2999 or visit http://www.themarketanderson.org.