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Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West Make “Our Town” New Again

Deric Augustine and Sandra Mae Frank in Our Town at Pasadena Playhouse.[Photo: Jenny Graham]

When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” first appeared in 1938, its production was a radical departure from what theater had been up until that time. This intimate portrait of small town New Hampshire at the start of the 20th Century would prove to modern audiences what theater could do that film (and later television) could not: allow the audience to fill in details of setting, props and other physical elements on their own, without elaborate stage trappings. It would celebrate what Shakespeare knew, that the audience was ready to lean upon their own imaginations.

The Pasadena Playhouse has produced this Pulitzer Prize-winning play twice before in its 100 year history. Now, in association with Deaf West Theatre, it has opened again, and – thanks to this collaboration – their new production underscores the essential tenets of stagecraft which made the original such a satisfying departure. Hearing and hearing-impaired performers speak two languages at once (English and ASL), and their individual characters and performance styles meld into a whole Wilder himself would approve of. Good thing, too, for “Our Town” is completely performance-dependent. There is nothing gaudy or distracting to take attention off the actors themselves.

The story covers a few central characters over the course of life in a small town, focused most strongly on George Gibbs and the girl next door, Emily Webb. We watch them and their families as George and Emily grow from childhood friends, to a couple about to marry, and then to the moment Emily’s death closes the circle. We watch them as the “stage manager” (in this case one hearing person and three deaf persons, essentially intertwined) narrates, explains, draws verbal pictures of the larger goings on, and rounds out the town’s sense of community. All of this on a bare stage with a few ropes, a couple of ladders and a host of chairs. It has always been rather revelatory to watch.

Standouts include Jane Kaczmarek, as the stage manager, joined in some cases by Russell Harvard when he’s not playing Emily’s father, sometimes by Alexandria Wailes, when she is not playing George’s mother, and at other times by Troy Kotsur, when he’s not playing the town’s church organist and resident alcoholic. The virtual dance they do in shifting in and out of Kaczmarek’s sphere proves both humorous and fascinating. Kaczmarek herself provides the calm and patient embodiment of the town as a whole, and stands as interpreter of a script she shepherds along. The success of this combination of forces comes to define what works in this production.

Sandra Mae Frank makes a charmingly innocent Emily, aided by the voice of Sharon Pierre-Louis in a way which meshes the physicalized and vocalized lines into a very effective whole. Deric Augustine gives George the gee-whiz attitude of a small-town baseball player shy with girls and earnest in looking forward. Annika Marks makes Emily’s mother practical and loving. Jud Williford makes George’s father humorous and practical.

A remarkable ensemble of Marie-France Arcilla, Harold Foxx, David Gautreaux, Marco Gutierrez, Leonard Kelly-Young, Dot-Marie Jones, Amanda McDonough, Natasha Ofili, Sharon Pierre-Louis, and On Shiu provide the rest of the town, voices for those characters who only sign, and flesh out even the set on occasion. Of these, the true standouts are Foxx, as a milkman with a very opinionated horse, and Jones as a woman from a troubled marriage who still thrills at going to weddings.

Everyone signs. This is important, though (as has been stated elsewhere) a few hearing cast members are brand new to ASL and it sometimes shows in their slowness of speech. On the other hand, the use of sign is a theatrical virtue in itself, as it provides emphasis, enthusiasm, even a sense of prayer or dance to moments which would otherwise just be words. “Our Town” is of necessity talky, and making the talk visual breathes a newness into it all.

Director Sheryl Kaller has experience with this kind of melding, and has taken the universality she sees in this script a step further, including (obviously) those who are hearing and those who are not, but also amassing a cast rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. Choreographer David Dorfman has facilitated the sense of dance that is sign taken as music, as well as moments of movement necessary to the storyline or to this duality of voice.

In the end, what Wilder had to say with this play comes out just as strongly, if not more so, as it did in the original: things change, but not those things that define us. That, joined with a desire to treasure every moment which will not come again, meshed with the impossibility of that very desire as our day-to-day flows by far too quickly. There is a peace and perspective and timelessness to “Our Town” which is important in this fractious and divisive time. Adding together two important but often separate cultures of America – that of the hearing and the deaf – makes a statement as well about what this town, this stage, this nation really has to offer.

“Our Town” is a love song to that which is best in American culture, which we rarely take time to notice. Go. Stop for a while. Notice what’s up on stage, and celebrate what is so important in the unimportant details of life.

What: “Our Town” When: through October 22, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $92 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

Peeling the Layers of “Tribes” at the Taper

Lee Roy Rogers, Jeff Still, Will Brill, Gayle Rankin and Russell Harvard create a family of noise and silences in "Tribes" at the Mark Taper Forum

Lee Roy Rogers, Jeff Still, Will Brill, Gayle Rankin and Russell Harvard create a family of noise and silences in “Tribes” at the Mark Taper Forum

One of the great delights of experiencing fine playwriting is the discovery of the many layers within a seemingly straightforward plot. There is, of course, a reasonably compelling story, but underneath it are individual characters and relationships which create complex and far more universal statements about society or individuals within that society. Such a play is Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” currently at the Mark Taper Forum.

In its most obvious form, “Tribes” is about a rather esoteric and bohemian British family – father, mother, two sons and a daughter. One of the sons, Billy, was born deaf, and has been taught to lip-read so as to maintain his connection with his family and the larger world. Indeed, Billy’s father is adamant that learning to sign instead would have limited Billy to a subculture.

Still, there is a lot Billy doesn’t catch in the whirlwind of conversation which swirls about this family circle. This he discovers for himself, when he meets and falls for Sylvia, a girl from a deaf family – now losing her hearing herself – who can and does use ASL (American Sign Language).

Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar in "Tribes"

Russell Harvard and Susan Pourfar in “Tribes”

But on another level, this is about resistance to difference, and the ways in which those who can hear can still use that resistance to remain deaf to the truth of the people around them. As these themes develop, intersect and even entwine, the play becomes more and more compelling, and more and more artistically satisfying.

This, in great measure, because it is so well played, and directed with such an innate sense of the play’s purpose, and of how to bring conversations we as audience cannot hear into the forefront of our understanding.

Russell Harvard is deaf himself, and plays to his own as well as his character’s truths: underscoring all that Billy has done to adapt to what he can access in order to function in his world, and bringing to his use of ASL a visual glee. As Billy’s rather myopic but bombastic father, Jeff Still maintains the intensity of a character of great sureness and volume, and profoundly warped accuracy.

Will Brill creates the increasingly panicked, fragile brother, while Gayle Rankin settles into the role of the underimpressive sister. Lee Roy Rogers, as the woman who gives as much ballast as any one person can to this roiling family, makes the mother a woman with her own blinders, while Susan Pourfar helps to define the dignity and ambiguity of difference with a passion which ties the rest together.

Director David Cromer choreographs this complex human knot so that all parts are embraceable. Scott Pask’s porous scenic design creates not only settings, but the surfaces necessary for the obligatory projections – superscripts which tell a hearing audience what those speaking ASL are saying.

In short, even on a more surface level, “Tribes” has much to say about the necessity of expression, and the importance of “listening” fully, whether with one’s ears or one’s eyes, to those one is close to. Take the time to absorb this, and peel the layers as you go. It will definitely be worth the concentration.

What: “Tribes” When: Through April 14, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772, TDD (213) 680-4017, or

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