The magic of theatre often allows the exploration of unusual stories or sidelined characters who are given sympathy and attention on stage. This nearly century old Thornton Wilder play, though, pares back dramatic excess for a return to pure performance and simple living.
Our Town covers fourteen years in a small New Hampshire town through the regular births, deaths, and marriages of the townsfolk. Rather than using a realism approach to this series of stories, Wilder’s script peels back the illusions of theatre to reveal the hidden scaffolding. A stage manager (Haki Pepo Olu Crisden) narrates the years and guides both the actors and audience through their key moments. The design is similarly sparse with the set by David Pointon including two dining sets and two ladders in front of a sandy, nondescript landscape backdrop. The props, natural elements, and local domesticated animals are all, sometimes tediously, mimed by the cast with relevant sound cues from Kim Jones.
The director’s vision from Lyn Lee sees this bare bones approach to theatre as a way of stripping back distraction and getting to the heart of what makes us human. It’s an understandable desire for universality but, perhaps as the design’s neutral colour palette indicates, a life devoid of difference is at best bland and at worst oppressive. Nevertheless, Wilder’s script is a slow, steady meditation on the passing of time with a particularly poignant rumination on death by the stage manager in the final scene. These key moments of birth, death, and marriage, and the myriad ceremonies used to mark them the world over, are touchstones for life and storytelling.
Crisden’s melodic delivery of the narration set the tone for the production as reserved and reflective. But at the same time, there was an eeriness to the way he broke into scenes, as though the transparency of the production’s construction had bred stilted performances with a tendency to withhold emotional investment and the meta-address illuminated the effect. The characters George (Harry Bland) and Emily (Eloise Tanti) are the youthful relief of the production for their central storyline of childhood romance, joyful marriage, and eventual tragedy. Their happiness and frivolity breathed life into their scenes, particularly in awkward conversations with the gruff fathers Dr Gibbs (Barry McMaster) and Mr Webb (Brian McGann). The two town oddballs of Simon Stimson (Malcolm Gregory) and busy-body Mrs Soames (Leona Wilson) were also crowd favourites for the colourful characterisations they added to the town.
While Our Town strives for a simple familiarity between story and audience, the recognition of these characters, this place, these events is entirely dependent on which lives we’ve chosen as representative through time. When making calls for universality and shared humanity, we must examine the impossibility of such a story when our lives and experiences have never been the same. Instead, Our Town offers a sweet but specific story of a love short-lived.
Our Town is running at the Guild Theatre from May 7th – June 5th
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.