O.C. STAGE REVIEW : Grove's 'Our Town' Stumbles in Search for Lyricism, Purity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Mary McCarthy, who was no fan of Thornton Wilder's plays during her years as a theater critic, regarded "Our Town" with grudging admiration. For once, she conceded, his "perennial nostalgia" had found "a pure and lyrical expression" in this classic piece of Americana.

The Grove Shakespeare Festival revival of Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which opened Saturday at the Gem Theatre here, strives for that purity and lyricism but finally lacks the spellbinding rhythm that could have transformed what is a good production into a deeply affecting one.

Despite a pitch-perfect, marvelously well-turned performance by Douglas Rowe in the dominant role of the dry yet folksy Stage Manager who takes us back to the mythical New Hampshire village of Grovers Corners at the turn of the century, the overall impact of the production is diminished by several directorial choices in both the staging and the casting.

To begin with, it is a misconception to think that because "Our Town" requires no scenery it also requires no setting. The grandeur of the piece needs to be underscored by the bare stage, not erased by it. This can be achieved with naturalistic lighting, which Wilder called for to evoke the passage of time from dawn to dusk, but which is entirely absent here.

Also, certain scenes could have used an eye for pictorial detail. A key tableau of the graveside mourners standing in the rain under their umbrellas is more or less muffed in the third act, for instance, because it is not properly accented. At other times ensemble entrances that need conspicuous formality to heighten their mood are left raggedly informal.

Moreover, while the play demands a mix of acting styles for its presentational format--realistic as well as pantomime--it shouldn't fuss over them. And this the production does to distraction, particularly during the first act when Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb shell more than enough beans to feed an army.

In the meantime, the poignant relationship between George and Emily, which lies at the heart of the play, must be made real even in a non-realistic drama if we are to be touched by the final scenes of loss and desolation.

But Ellen Dunning's breathless characterization of Emily never achieves any credibility, either as an adolescent falling in love or as a mother who has died in childbirth. Her shrill voice, with its pinched, whiny tone, and her mugging gestures are made for comedy, not for "Our Town."

Charles Cook, playing against this handicap, does well just the same as George, the young man who gives up baseball for marriage and settles down with Emily to the hard-working life of a New England farmer. He is cast to type, and he plays the role of the sincere, jug-eared innocent with down-to-earth conviction.

Other performers who bring their roles to life are Jenifer Parker, who is particularly vivid as Mrs. Webb; Kevin Symons as Mr. Webb; Gary Bell as Dr. Gibbs; Brenda Parks as Mrs. Soames; Donald Sage Mackay as Simon Stimson, and Marnie Crossen as Mrs. Gibbs.

The Stage Manager tells us just why Wilder has chosen to memorialize bucolic Grovers Corners, population 2,642, in all its mundane rituals. We know virtually nothing of Babylon, though it "once had 2 million people in it," he says. So he's going to insert a copy of the play in the cornerstone of a bank building under construction in the town to tell "people a thousand years from now--this is the way we were in the provinces . . . in our growing up and in our marrying, and in our living, and in our dying."

Fifty-three years after the original production, "Our Town" has been staged so often it seems unlikely that future generations will need to open that cornerstone.

The revival at the Gem is worth seeing as part of that honorable documentary tradition, although it doesn't pass what I deem to be the litmus test of artistic success: the sound of the audience sniffling in the third act.

'Our Town'

Douglas Rowe: Stage Manager

Marnie Crossen: Mrs. Gibbs

Gary Bell: Dr. Gibbs

Jenifer Parker: Mrs. Webb

Kevin Symons: Mr. Webb

Charles Cook: George

Ellen Dunning: Emily

Steve Atinsky: Howie Newsome

Robert Chase: Constable Warren

Don McKay: Simon Stimson

Brenda Parks: Mrs. Soames

A Grove Shakespeare Festival production of Thornton Wilder's play. Directed by Carl Reggiardo. Set design by Michael L.D. Hruska. Costumes by Laura E. Deremer. Lighting design by David C. Palmer. Music and sound design by Chuck Estes. Makeup and hair by Karen Juneman. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Through Nov. 2 at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. Performances are Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $16 to $20. Information: (714) 636-7213.

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