Theater veterans help out with 'Our Town'

At one point in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," a narrator gives the audience a guided tour of the setting and notes, "Bryan once made a speech from these very steps here" — the man in question being William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for president shortly before the play's action begins.

He won't be the only prestigious name dropped at Newport Harbor High School's production of "Our Town," which opens Nov. 14 with some choice help from the theater community.

To help bring Wilder's 1938 classic to life, the school has enlisted the help of veteran South Coast Repertory director Mercy Vasquez and lighting designer Peter Maradudin, whose credits include Broadway shows and a slew of SCR productions.

"I've always felt that the plays that we've all been part of, they've been short of professional, but I feel they've been high for our high school level," said junior Derek Hemry, who plays Constable Warren and a baseball player in "Our Town." "And I feel that with Mercy and with Peter and with everyone else now, from this year forward, our performances are just going to be that much better."

Earlier this year, teacher Joe Robinson took over as arts department chair and roped in Maradudin, whose stepson attends Newport Harbor, for the fall production. The lighting designer, in turn, put out a feeler to SCR, and associate artistic director John Glore suggested Vasquez for the job.

It's not the first time Newport Harbor has enlisted theater professionals to help with its show. This summer, though, the school took the outside help to a new level when Vasquez and two other directors led a series of acting workshops, drilling students in enunciation, projection, body language and other essentials.

Meanwhile, with Maradudin overseeing the lighting and doubling as set designer, the stage area bears little resemblance to its usual self. To evoke a small theater from the time the play was written, the Costa Mesa resident conceived a brick-wall backdrop — actually made of thin pieces of wood — and a wood floor that lies atop the black stage in Newport Harbor's auditorium.

In terms of lighting and props, Maradudin took a minimalist approach, limiting his color scheme and relying on a few pieces of furniture. Wilder's script, in which an omniscient narrator wanders freely among the actors and comments on the scenario, invites this kind of uncluttered style; in one famous line, the narrator points to an unassuming prop and notes wryly that it's there "for those who need scenery."

The plot, of course, is familiar to many theater-goers. For the first two acts, the citizens of Grover's Corners go about the rituals of small-town life — courtship, marriage, school, work — before an unexpected twist in the third act puts the first two in abrupt perspective.

"It does deceive you," Maradudin said. "It lulls you into thinking that it's something very almost folksy and homespun, and yet by the end of it, it has this cumulative power that you just go, 'Wow, I just suddenly feel in tune with the universe.'"

To give Newport Harbor's cast more opportunities, Vasquez split the narrator role among three girls, who alternate lines and sometimes speak in unison as they roam the theater. Otherwise, the creative team stuck with Wilder's original vision — even leaving in dated elements like a line about women being unable to vote and a moment in which a narrator encourages the audience to smoke during intermission.

While Maradudin has never worked on a high school production before, Vasquez has worked for years with youth theater and was happy to make her Newport Harbor debut.

"What is fun is the energy of the young people and their exuberance and their excitement, and that's infectious," she said. "So I do really enjoy that aspect of it — and the idea that it's an educational process as well, so they're learning along the way. It's great to see them make those discoveries as we work."

If You Go

What: "Our Town"

Where: Newport Harbor High School, 600 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 14 and 15; 2 and 7 p.m. Nov. 16

Cost: $10 for adults, $5 for students

Information: (949) 515-6300 or

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