Each fall for the past four years, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has staged a “movable” production, with actors (and flashlight-wielding volunteers) leading the audience around and through the ruins at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. The treatment worked wonderfully two years ago for Julius Caesar—I can still hear Marc Antony declaiming “Friends, Romans, countrymen” from the great stone steps—and I have heard similarly good things about last season’s Titus Andronicus and the movable Macbeth that started the trend. But it is difficult to imagine a play better suited for performance on a hilltop overlooking Ellicott City, on a crisp autumn evening, in 360 degrees, than Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Let us forever dispel the notion, reinforced by generations of high schoolers trying on the iconic roles like vintage wear, that Our Town is sentimental or quaint. (In the most recent issue of Urbanite, director Ian Gallanar remembers thinking, before he reread the script, that “Our Town was a nice, sweet play about young people.”) Set during the early 20th century in a small, New Hampshire town called Grover’s Corners, the play is narrated by an omniscient Stage Manager, whose folksy accent only partly softens his edge. “This is the way we were,” he announces, “in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
That last part is crucial, and not only because the third act, titled Death and Eternity, takes place in a cemetery. Two of the first characters we meet are Doctor and Mrs. Gibbs, whose son, George, will marry Emily Webb, the play’s heroine. “Doc Gibbs died in 1930,” the Stage Manager immediately tells us. “Mrs. Gibbs died first.” Walking home in the early morning from “Polish Town,” where he delivered twins to an immigrant mother, Doc Gibbs meets the paperboy, Joe Crowell. “Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was,” the Stage Manager says. “But the war broke out and he died in France.”
Even so, most of the happenings in Our Town concern life: the seismic shifts caused by love and childbirth, and the everyday rhythms we take for granted, barely sensing. The beauty of the movable method is that it focuses attention on those unremarkable details. Two unnamed women pass through the scene; we forget them, and suddenly they reappear behind us, part of a church choir singing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” A schoolgirl speculates that the moon is moving closer to Earth, and we glance up at the evening sky. Does that train whistle come from the “real” world or a concealed speaker?
Gallanar allows the characters to move unhurriedly through their lives, pausing occasionally to take in Earth’s pleasures (and encouraging us to do the same), yet the pace never lags, and the actors all know where to find laughter in understatement. As George and Emily, respectively, Noah Bird and Kelsey Painter are as convincing as awkward teenagers as when they are grown. Michael P. Sullivan and Jenny Leopold, as Doc and Mrs. Gibbs, and Ron Heneghan and Lesley Malin, as Mr. and Mrs. Webb, fit snugly into the play’s models of conjugal love, and Heneghan and Painter share an achingly tender moment as father comforts daughter on her wedding day. If the women find less variety in their characters than the men, the fault is less theirs than the script’s—the men reveal more of their sides.
The most important role, of course, is the Stage Manager, and Dave Gamble is pitch-perfect—from his first appearance ambling down the dirt path toward us, he seems to have wandered directly from the imagination of Thornton Wilder. A charming, generous guide, Gamble appears both of the play’s time and ours, despite Marilyn Johnson’s period costumes, and his insights, though often unsolicited, are well received.