"Our Town" has become such a chestnut that it's easy to forget just how innovative it was when the drama premiered in 1938. Thornton Wilder's style, so thoroughly absorbed by the 20th century stage that it can now seem quaint, liberated our theatrical vocabulary to be as modern as the ancients'.
The new production of "Our Town," which opened Sunday at Pasadena Playhouse in a collaboration with Deaf West Theatre, reveals how open this Pulitzer Prize-winning play still is to experimentation. The Deaf West practice of splitting select roles between speaking and signing actors seems quite natural in a work that ditches realistic scenery and props, incorporates mime and picks up the narrative wherever and whenever it likes.
The last time I saw "Our Town" was at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, in a bracing revival directed by David Cromer and starring a commanding Helen Hunt in the role of the Stage Manager. This wasn't your kitschy community theater airing of the play glowing in amber. Cromer updated the presentation methods Wilder prescribed for a very different age.
Sheryl Kaller's staging at the Pasadena Playhouse, while more traditional in its emotional effects, brings its own novel lens. Rarely has Wilder's snapshot of this fictional New Hampshire hamlet seemed so diverse. The pairing of deaf and hearing actors is integral to Deaf West's aesthetic, but the inclusiveness extends beyond this.
The casting turns Grover's Corners at the turn of the 20th century into a multicultural utopia. I've seen more than my share of monochromatic productions, but the open theatricality of the play supports this more democratic approach.
Realism, after all, was never the point of the play. The making of the story is as important as the story itself. Wilder focuses on the process of illusion to reveal to us the vision that art can bring to our habit-deadened lives. "Our Town," which switches freely between the long view and the close-up, wants above all to create an awareness of time — its limited supply, the changes it ushers in and the retrospective understanding it brings.
Divided into three acts, the play begins with daily life, moves on to love and marriage and concludes at the cemetery, where the seated dead wait patiently to dissolve into eternity.
Jane Kaczmarek brings her wholesome, cracker-barrel charm to the role of the Stage Manager. She carries a bound prompt book and introduces us to the town and its inhabitants in a tone that manages to be full of feeling yet flinty enough to keep sentimentality at bay.
The first act can get hectic as the production layers in the full company. The problem isn't the way certain roles are shared by actors (one voicing, the other embodying, the character). It's that the playing styles and the blocking aren't as precisely calibrated as they need to be in a production that complicates Wilder's already daring stage plan.
A bit more simplicity from the strenuously colorful supporting cast would smooth our entry. But fortunately, the core company is strong, and once the focus is squarely on the Webb and the Gibbs households, two families living side by side, the production hits its stride. Kaller's direction grows more assured, and Wilder's tale is stunningly reborn for a new era.
Emily Webb, the bright daughter of the town's newspaper editor, Mr. Webb (played by Russell Harvard), is movingly played by Sandra Mae Frank and voiced by Sharon Pierre-Louis. The two actors synergize perfectly to create a fully fleshed out young woman who conversationally confides her innermost thoughts.
Deric Augustine plays George, the excitable, fun-loving and not especially disciplined son of the eminent Dr. Gibbs (Jud Williford). George grows smitten with Emily, who is smarter, more responsible and a good deal more judgmental than he is. But she has faith in his essential goodness, and Augustine's ardent portrayal makes it easy to see why she falls in love with him.
Annika Marks plays Mrs. Webb with a no-nonsense New England brusqueness. When Emily pesters her with insecure questions about her own appearance, Mrs. Webb snaps at her daughter, "You're pretty enough for all normal purposes." Marks' abrupt delivery brooks no backtalk. This mother's love is heavily coded but not impossible to decipher.
Mrs. Gibbs, played by Alexandria Wailes, worries endlessly about George's cavalier attitude. She wants him to eat a hearty breakfast, put on his jacket before going out into the damp cold and live up to her high ideals. Obedience isn't easy for him, but he loves her too much to disappoint her. Wailes' austere maternal manner is especially effective in the final act, when her character has to teach Emily the ropes of another phase in the human journey.
The scenic design by David Meyer and the lighting by Jared A. Sayeg never let us lose sight of the beauty of the rawly exposed Pasadena Playhouse stage. These elements are entrancingly coordinated when the action moves to the afterlife. The painterly tableau lends a dignity to Wilder's tale that keeps it from getting philosophically corny.
There are a few bumps and glitches in the production, a couple of bungled lines, and the pacing could be picked up here and there. I can't interpret sign language, but it didn't seem as if all the hearing actors were giving it the same robust attention.
These are minor distractions. The journey Wilder takes us on through the cycle of life in an ordinary American town is too emotionally pure to resist. The playwright doesn't say anything we don't already know, but the playful way he says it helps us to take in a wisdom that no technological breakthrough will ever render obsolete. Best of all, this production of "Our Town" really seems like our town.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 22
Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with two intermissions)
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