Thursday, September 3, 2009

Theater Review: Our Town

Location: Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., NY, NY

Website: Official Our Town site

Starring: Jason Butler Harner, James McMenamin, Jennifer Grace, Lori Myers, Armand Schultz, Kati Brazda, Ken Marks

My Review: I may be one of the few Americans out there who never had to read or attend a production of Our Town while in school. But I didn’t wander into the production at the Barrow Street Theatre completely blind; I knew the basic premise was a play about small-town America at the turn of the century (I had seen the episodes of The Wonder Years and My So-Called Life where they put on high school productions of it, after all). I had also heard Our Town billed as both “one of the greatest American works in existence” and “mind-numbingly boring” from various critics (some reputable, others…less so). So I was eager to attend this production with as close to no preconceived notions as I’ll ever have when attending theater, and to form my own opinion of this theatrical classic.

It’s not easy to summarize the plot of Our Town, since it’s about nearly everything that life is about: Childhood, love, marriage, fear, daily life, growing old, death, etc. The premise is deceptively simple: Three distinct acts follow life in the quiet, simple town of Grover’s Corner, NH, in the early 1900s. The action centers primarily on two of the town’s families, the Webbs and the Gibbs, who are friends and neighbors. Act I is about daily life, where the women prepare meals, the men go to work, and the kids go to school. Act II is about marriage and growing up, where childhood sweethearts George and Emily from Act I are a bit older and nervously take the next step in their lives. Act III is about death, and pays a visit to the town cemetery where ghosts of deceased characters converse, reflect on what they left behind, and look towards what’s coming next. And in this simple tale you choose to see as much or as little as you want, and I’m willing to bet that attending this play is a vastly different experience for every audience member.

Neither the play itself nor this particular production are perfect, but perfection isn’t necessary when it still manages to pack an emotional punch that has you leaving the theater feeling a bizarre mixture of sadness, hopefulness, and determination to make the little things in life count. The Barrow Street production can’t help but make you feel something before you leave because it takes place literally in your face. The theater is tiny (around 150 seats, I believe) and the stage is actually the floor where there are audience seats assembled. The main floor space acts as the location for the indoor action, while walkways between rows of seats act as streets and paths the characters take to get to where they’re going, stopping to converse with each other along the way. Depending on where you’re seated, there are moments when you’re so close to the action you could reach out and tie the actor’s shoe (but don’t worry, this isn’t Hair; audience participation is not requested). This sort of theatrical intimacy really helps to drive home the point that “this is life, you are witnessing life, and you are a part of this life.” I can see how some might find a production of Our Town done on a traditional stage would find it dull and outdated, but this production brings you too far into the thick of it all to feel that removed from what’s going on.

All of the performances are handled well, and while none are really stand-outs (this isn’t a stand-out sort of show), some are superior to others. Jason Butler Harner as the Stage Manager is probably the best performance in the play (good thing, too, since he has the most stage time). He acts as a narrator for the audience, then changes tactics to interact with the other characters, even taking on the role of a minor character in the few scenes that require one. He smoothly dances in and out of the play throughout all three acts and manages to make the audience truly see and feel what the characters are going through. Lori Myer as Mrs. Gibbs also stood out for me, as a woman who loves her family and the role she plays in taking care of them, but still longs for some time away with a husband who has no interest in even discussing the possibility. I was a bit ambivalent to Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb in the first act, but she sold me in Act II as she played the heart-breaking role of a bride petrified of growing up, being disappointed, and learning how to cope with everything to come (I can’t even get into what she puts you through in Act III without giving away the entire heart and soul of the production). The only minor detractor in the cast was James McMenamin as George Gibbs, and my only real complaint is that his surfer-dude-esque accent was distracting. I thought it was something he was affecting in Act I to sound like the teenager his character was, but in subsequent acts I saw that it’s just how he talks. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise great ensemble, but I couldn’t shake the image of “Keanu Reeves does Our Town.”

Bottom Line: If you’ve never seen a production of Our Town and wonder why so many schools make it required reading (or if you’ve only seen bad productions of it and are jaded to the entire show), the Barrow Street Theatre production is a must-see. Its study in simple living can relate to even the most cosmopolitan of New Yorkers, because at the end of it all, it’s the simple things in life that everyone remembers and clings to—and they have a habit of sneaking up on you while you’re overly occupied painting the big picture, so it’s helpful to have the occasional reminder to take pause for those moments.

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