THEATER REVIEW : Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary in 'Our Town'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" is arguably the greatest American play of the 20th century.

There are reasons for that. Wilder worked in an atmosphere of heightened creativity in the period between the two World Wars. Not only did he write a play about the lives of ordinary people in non-urban, pre-television America, but he did it with insight and immense affection.

Wilder also told his tale of growing up and growing old in the small rural town of Grover's Corners, N.H., in what was considered a startling manner when the play opened on Broadway in 1938. It took place on a bare stage, without props or scenery--the point being that it was the text that mattered, not the fancy dressing.

In his staging at Fullerton College's Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, director Robert Jensen has chosen to include some bits of scenery, such as sections of picket fence and a couple of tables for the families to sit at. It doesn't damage the power and poignancy of the script, but it seems a bit odd, since he hasn't included the horse that milkman Howie Newsome (Charles L. Rogers) leads on and off stage, or the newspapers that paperboy Joe Crowell (Nathan Jones) throws onto porches. Plus there's the distraction of most of the cast coming onstage to move things about.

The additions are unnecessary. Jensen's use of projections on a rear scrim, including indications of time of day, place and weather, work just fine to set the scenes.

And, truthfully, Jensen's staging would work even without the projected images. He understands the shape and shadings in the script, and his rhythms throughout are impeccable. Vocal coach Stephanie Sparrow has given the young cast a good sense of the flat New Hampshire accent, and Jensen's use of Aaron Copland's incidental music (written for the film version of "Our Town") adds to the small-town aura of the production.

Although some of the actors are inclined to overplay the stereotypes, the cast generally treats the text with honesty and sincerity. Ken Jaedicke, as undertaker Joe Stoddard, makes much of digging the grave in Act III, when actually undertakers are not gravediggers, and he tries too hard for caricature rather than character. Jennifer Morales, fine in other ensemble roles here, is ludicrous as the learned Professor Willard, who gives statistical information about the town. The actress unfortunately plays the role for laughs, with much mugging and a lack of dignity that would alarm someone like Professor Willard. Morales is also pantomime coach for the production; unfortunately, she has some doorknobs positioned at shoulder level, and other imaginary props in odd places.

The production belongs to Melanie Baker as Emily Webb, the girl and later young woman who is Wilder's image of innocence and faith in the good things life offers. Especially in her farewell speech, Baker gives a gentle and warm performance. Joseph Arnold is George Gibbs, the boy who grows up next door to Emily and finally realizes they are meant for each other. Their soda fountain scene, in which that discovery is made, is difficult to play, yet they do it with sweetness and understanding. Arnold's performance thrives on the few colors he gives it, just enough to create the image of small-town contentment.

Jennifer Gordon and Chad McFarlane succeed in giving Emily's parents the right shadings and a sincere feeling of real family; Mrs. Webb is especially rich in detail. As George's parents, Jennifer Harrison and Ramsey Warfield are quite credible. Rogers as Howie Newsome and Jones as Joe Crowell are realistically characterized and truthful.

The most important ingredient in Wilder's world is the Stage Manager (Michael M. Miller), who narrates the story and sometimes steps into a character. Miller gives a fine, textured and insightful performance, with just enough of a cynical edge, a gracious sense of humor and an able handling of the role's long monologues.

* "Our Town," Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, Fullerton College Theatre Complex, 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Closes Sunday. $5-$8. (714) 871-8101. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Michael M. Miller: Stage Manager

Joseph Arnold: George Gibbs

Melanie Baker: Emily Webb

Jennifer Gordon: Mrs. Webb

Jennifer Harrison: Mrs. Gibbs

Chad McFarlane: Mr. Webb

Ramsey Warfield: Mr. Gibbs

Charles L. Rogers: Howie Newsome

Nathan Jones: Joe Crowell

Ken Jaedicke: Joe Stoddard

Jennifer Morales: Professor Willard

Amy Walker: Mrs. Soames

A Fullerton College theater arts department production of Thornton Wilder's classic drama. Directed by Robert Jensen. Assistant director: Stacy Lynn Gale. Lighting design: Vincent Gallegos. Sound design: Jim Book. Vocal coach: Stephanie Sparrow. Pantomime coach: Jennifer Morales. Costume design: Maria Wortham. Stage manager: Edward Anthony Garcia.

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