Playwright Thornton Wilder's Our Town is one of the few preachy plays that I don't mind for its sermonizing. With his blatant, nearly Buddhist statements and themes about living, really living, each and every moment of life, Wilder is unapologetic about the points he wants to drive home. And perhaps because his ideas are so universally acceptable, it's easy to accept Wilder's moralizing. It also helps that the delivery of his messages is so emotionally poignant, as was effectively displayed during Friday night's Our Town performance at Augustana College.
Wilder's story focuses on everyday life, love, and eventually death, with the small town of Grovers Corners serving as its setting. His themes, meanwhile, are expressed primarily through the characters of George Gibbs, a doctor's son, and Emily Webb, a newspaper editor's daughter, as they grow up as next-door neighbors, fall in love, and eventually marry. Choosing a traditional route for his staging of Wilder's work, one made clear in the script, director Jeff Coussens sets Our Town within a theatre - acknowledging that the production is a play - and with the character of the Stage Manager serving as narrator. The set, meanwhile, is basic almost to the point of absent, with chairs, tables, stools, and a trellis pretty much the only pieces of scenery. (Silhouettes, such as those of a town's Main Street and a cemetery, are projected on a backdrop, and the actors pantomime the use of imagined props.)
While his staging may be traditional, Coussens makes clear in his program notes that his intent is to deliver a contemporary interpretation of Wilder's play; his concept, as he explains, is to make the Stage Manager a member of the audience's 2011 time period, journeying with us to the early-20th-Century setting of Grovers Corners. Yet beyond her modern style of clothing, I didn't quite get that from Jacqui Schmidt's performance as the Stage Manager. For her part, Schmidt has impressive stage presence, seemingly in full control of the action around her, and her voice is clear and strong as she plays to the (nonexistent) balcony. However, her acting wavers between obvious affectation and naturalistic delivery. Interestingly, she is most sincere in her performance when she's embellishing her lines with humorous inflections or physical punctuation, as if she's most comfortable when being funny.
Kat Martin is also notable for her comedic interpretation of Emily Webb. It's not that she makes Emily funny, but that she finds effective ways to bring out small bits of comicality here and there, oftentimes through pauses not necessarily written into her dialogue. (Telling George, "And I used to watch you as you did everything," she takes a beat, then quickly and emphatically covers the perceived creepiness of that statement with a rushed "because we'd been friends.") Martin's deliveries strike me as somewhat similar to Zooey Deschanel's, with a charm and slightly quirky humor underlying her lines.
Bill Cahill's turn as George Gibbs is much less nuanced, but sweet for its lack of pretense. Cahill doesn't so much try to shape a character as he does simply speak his lines in an unaffected yet earnest manner, and his line deliveries for his boy next door are appropriately boy-next-door straightforward.
My favorite performance, however, is Caitilin Harbecke's interpretation of Mrs. Gibbs. It's clear that Harbecke worked hard to flesh out her character and understand her motivations, background, and personality, yet this practiced effort is presented with seeming effortlessness. Her acting is the most believable, least contrived of Our Town's cast, although Sean Serluco also impressed me with his subtlety in portraying Mr. Webb, shading his dialogue with undertones of frustration and weariness.
While the rest of the cast tends toward Southern accents more than accents appropriate for people of New England, they adequately bring Wilder's themes of small-town living and living in the moment to the Augustana stage in this careful, respectful presentation of his play. In fact, despite my familiarity with the material, I found myself struggling to choke back heavy tears while examining my own life through much of the play's third act. That being the goal of Wilder's piece - to get audiences to at least contemplate the value of every moment of life - I consider Coussens's and his cast's production most successful.
For information and tickets, call (309)794-7306.