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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 http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org