through Oct. 16, Connecticut Repertory Theater, UConn, Nafe Katter Theater, (860) 486-4226, crt.uconn.edu
Too many productions of Thornton Wilder's Our Town languish in a hokey, lugubrious, "aw schucks" New Hampshah dialect, in a misplaced effort to bring some vocal realism to the anti-realist aesthetic of this great play, which is ostensibly set in Grover's Corners, N.H. This can become deadly, particularly since so much of act one is spoken directly to the audience by the famous Stage Manager.
The current production at CT Repertory Theater avoids this pitfall, but goes way too far in another direction. The quirky, intriguing David Patrick Kelly (familiar to many from his role as Jerry Horne in "Twin Peaks") carries the crucial role of Stage Manager. He rushes through lengthy passages of exposition about the town and philosophical musings about life, love and death at such a rapid clip that the ideas don't really have a chance to land and soak in.
This fast-talking approach is so pervasive in this production that it must be deliberately directed by Robert Ross Parker, a visiting newcomer from Brooklyn. There, he's co-artistic director of the Obie award-winning theater company Vampire Cowboys, which specializes in a "cartoon aesthetic" and does cutting-edge new work. It's hard to imagine a starker stylistic contrast to the stripped-down rigor of Wilder's intentions in Our Town. All that makes me guess that at CT Repertory this time we have a fine director who is simply mismatched with a great text. Such jarring aesthetic differences can make for exciting discoveries but here it's just a misfire.
CT Repertory Theater brings in Equity actors for several roles per show, generally playing the middle-aged and older characters, and otherwise fills the cast (including leads) with students from both the undergraduate and graduate programs. Here, it works well to have Equity players in the roles of Stage Manager and the parents. Brad Bellamy as Editor Webb is particularly effective, supplying a quivering hand and a deadpan delivery that supplies plenty of irony with being arch.
The student actors in the central roles of Emily and George, the neighbor teens who provide the central love story of the show, are almost too old for the parts. This is particularly so for Michael John Improta, a junior at UConn, who has a lovely deep voice and more assurance on stage than the boy he portrays in acts one and two. Kelsea Baker fares better as Emily, and is more able to access her girlishness; but act three depends heavily on her ability to connect the audience to her own anguish, and here the channel seems too shallow. Again, pace is in her way.
The production is beautifully designed, costumed and lit, and the whole experience is a worthy way to introduce this wonderful, important work to people who have never seen it. I just wish the artists had trusted the audience a little more to stay with them and resonate to moments offered in a more deliberate tempo. True, we've left behind the aesthetic of a three-act, two-intermission show — but we can still be induced to drop into a more contemplative place by great art. That is, I'd say, one of the reasons we continue to crave it.