A busier-than-usual weekend dictated that I catch a final dress rehearsal for the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Our Town on Monday, and at the well-attended preview, I found myself seated behind two couples who chuckled while perusing the program - their amusement stemmed from realizing that Thornton Wilder's play would be produced in three acts, and, as one of the women laughed, "We'll be here past our bedtime."
There were, though, some things the foursome didn't consider. One was that although Playcrafters' production is indeed presented with two intermissions, the second intermission is only a five-minute break, more like a really lengthy scene-change. Another was that this Americana classic is structured so beautifully that it rarely feels long. The simple pleasures of small-town life - in all of their wonderful, terrible insignificance - are extolled with lovely economy; Wilder makes his points (often while making you laugh) and promptly moves on.
But what none of us could have guessed is that this presentation would be over so quickly. Without any cuts to Wilder's script, Monday's performance clocked in at just over two hours, which was both a blessing and a curse - a blessing because the pacing never lagged and the actors were consistently on top of their cues, and a curse because the show's poignancy and larger scope barely had the chance to register. Playcrafters audiences will likely take this Our Town as a fitfully funny and touching period piece, and a well-crafted one at that. And it is. It's just that it should also be so much more.
I'm hoping that, by opening night, it was, because even in its rehearsal stage, the show looked terrific. Those who know Our Town know that it's traditionally performed on a bare-bones set, featuring only a few chairs, tables, and ladders. (For the Barn Theatre, Gary Baker has designed a smartly functional, raked playing area.) Much of Our Town's visual flair, therefore, comes from the costumes and lighting, and costume coordinator Ashley Crow and the ever-inventive designer Jennifer Kingry do superb work here; the women's dresses in the wedding scene are particularly elegant, and Kingry achieves a marvelous effect when actors exiting up-stage are, momentarily, seen completely in silhouette, as if they were memories receding into the past.
Yet the most memorable visuals - the moments we remember when we think of Our Town - come through the staging, and it's no small praise to say that director Tom Swegle does the work proud. Cannily, he opens the show with the Stage Manager (Greg Cripple) orchestrating the arrangement of the set pieces so we immediately glean the play-within-a-play conceit, and he continually choreographs the performers' traffic patterns with skill. But it's Swegle's handling of the play's iconic moments - the wedding, the cemetery scene, Emily (Mary Jean Sedlock) and George (Kevin Maynard) gazing at the moon - that's especially impressive. When Emily, in her heartbreaking wedding gown, walks through a sea of umbrellas to join the deceased, the image - like many in this production - rekindles all your favorite memories of past Our Towns, and creates a few new ones.
Everything was in place for a first-rate, moving production. But considering how rapidly the cast members tore through their material on Monday night, one wasn't in the offing. An accelerated tempo, in itself, isn't a flaw. But it can be one when speed causes emotional shifts and stage action to be confusing and when it impedes the poetry, and this occurred repeatedly at Monday's preview; the cast members knew their lines, but I wasn't convinced that all of them knew what they meant, or rather, what they meant in the context of the piece.
This was especially pronounced during the climactic scene of Emily's 12th birthday, when the actors' words came out in breathless fashion, without giving the audience time to soak in their relevance and import, or even to glean what's happening. (And a lot is.) The lines were there but the intent wasn't, and as of this dress rehearsal, several other scenes were performed at a clip that muddied the meaning of both the dialogue and the themes behind the dialogue. The backyard conversation between Mrs. Gibbs (Sandy Stoltenberg) and Mrs. Webb (Jaci Weigandt); the soda-fountain encounter between Emily and George; the kitchen-table heart-to-heart between Dr. Gibbs (the enjoyably self-amused Spiro Bruskas) and his son ... these and other sequences got their laughs yet missed the underlying sentiment - the emotion. The leading actors were sincere in their efforts but weren't quite conveying the characters' sincerity; Playcrafters' production oftentimes felt like Our Town: The Cliff's Notes.
Several of the actors in smaller roles, however, do come off wonderfully well. Josh Kahn gives the play's standout performance as the morose, drunken Simon Stimson; Kahn never goes for easy laughs, and makes Stimson's bitterness and disappointment palpable - it's a strong, focused character turn. Kim Nesseler provides amusingly batty readings as Mrs. Soames and handles her cemetery scene with finesse - all of the actors playing the deceased do so with appropriate, unforced gravity - while Jim Pearce gives good comedic bluster as Mr. Webb. And Tom Betts, who seemed all wrong for the sane doctor of Playcrafters' One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is absolutely right for the garrulous Professor Willard - Betts' brief, loopy turn is a triumph of well-calibrated eccentricity.
Given the grace and understated power of Wilder's accomplishment, Our Town is always worth seeing, and even at that dress rehearsal, Playcrafters' production was a more-than-acceptable one. But in order for it to emerge as a great one - which may have happened by opening night - the actors need to feel, and do their best to communicate, the play's beauty. As of Monday, though, many of them appeared less concerned about Wilder's work than about getting the audience to bed at a reasonable hour.
For tickets, call (309) 762-0330.