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Stolid: ACT’s Our Town.

Breathless

By James Yeara

Our Town

By Thornton Wilder, directed by Carol King

Albany Civic Theater, through May 23

Albany Civic Theater’s artistic director, Carol King has taken Thornton Wilder’s immortal classic, 1938’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, and rendered it in classic community-theater fashion. Our Town has stood the test of time: It is performed all over the world, and it has had all manner of interpretations concerning its godlike Stage Manager—even playwright Thornton Wilder played the role, and directors have been bold enough with “nontraditional casting” to use women, teenagers, even multiple actors in a role traditionally cast as a white, senior-citizen male to explore the emotions, philosophy, and nuances of the play. And it’s survived being part of the American literary canon for high schools where students often study symbolism more than substance and theme more than emotion.

King’s version is heavy on Our Town as literature, making her production more a museum exhibit than a play. Two green outlines of doorframes stand downstage left and right leading to matching stairs mid-left and -right. Two matching small round wooden tables with two matching wooden chairs each stand mid-center stage, framed immediately upstage by two brown flats. An old fashioned “ghost light” dead center stage rounds out the set of a play famous for its minimal set requirements. “For those who that feel they have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager (Patrick White) kindly says of the door frames. The edges of light harden on faces as the players stomp around the stage. The sound of chickens clucking or train whistles blowing or church bells ringing punctuates the line readings, which are recalled often with some obvious effort. Some care has gone into early-20th- century costuming of the female troupers, while the male participants wear an eclectic mix of double-breasted suits and three-button suit coats.

Patrick White does make a comfortable, avuncular Stage Manager, welcoming the audience to the friendly neighborhood that is ACT’s Grover’s Corners. He is pleasant, makes eye contact, and is calm, as if he belonged here and wanted his audience to settle in for a satisfactory time. But there are no challenges here; Grover’s Corners is “a very ordinary town . . . probably a lot duller” than most, as Wilder writes. Yet while the Stage Manager knows past, present, and future—he even tells the audience he’s going to have a copy of Our Town put in a cornerstone of the new bank so “people a thousand years from now” will know “this is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying, in our living, and in our dying”—there’s none of the poetry and the pathos that can make seeing Our Town a transcendent experience.

Our Town can be something more; the play begins with the Stage Manager prophesying the death of characters, and Our Town ends in the Grover’s Corners’ cemetery with the dead who, as the Stage Manager states, “don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.” Life and death are pretty big themes. But you can only mourn those who were once alive. And for that to happen, a production has to have a higher standard than just saying memorized words as the performers execute the director’s blocking. Someone has to breathe. This Our Town achieves the remarkable effect of not letting the audience members for a moment forget that they are just listening to words memorized in a play spoken by friends and relatives. As one character states, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every minute?” At ACT, the answer is a complacent no.

 


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