Theater Review: OUR TOWN (South Coast Rep)

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by Marc Wheeler on May 25, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

OUR CELEBRATION

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s birth. As part of the Wilder125 celebration, about 150 productions of the esteemed writer’s plays are being staged worldwide, including a revival of The Skin of Our Teeth on Broadway. This week, I had the privilege of seeing what’s arguably Wilder’s most famous work – Our Town – at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California. It was a pleasant reminder of why this 1938 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (written by Wilder in his early 40s) remains one of the most produced plays of all time.

Evan Lugo, Michael Manuel and Grace Morrison
Moses Villarama

If you’re reading this, chances are high you’ve at least heard of Our Town, if not read it or seen it – perhaps more than once. Admittedly, it’s one of my favorite plays. I know this is a popular sentiment, but that doesn’t change my love for it. If anything, it inspires me. As a teenager, I saw a community theater production of Our Town; I think it was the first play I ever saw. I was amazed how a show with actors pantomiming invisible “props” on a relatively bare stage could move me to tears. It was all so simple. And yet, it opened up an entire universe in my mind. A year later, I played the role of Mr. Webb in my high school’s production. In my formative years, Our Town showed me the power of theater. Year after year, I’m still chasing it.

Kwana Martinez and Elyse Mirto
Evan Lugo and Corey Jones

Over three acts and two intermissions, Our Town – adeptly directed for South Coast Repertory by Beth Lopes – peers into the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners at the start of the 20th century. Guiding us through this metatheatrical work is a Stage Manager, played here by SCR Founding Artist, Hal Landon Jr. The Stage Manager, along with the actors he presents to us, has one foot in our modern world and another in 1901 – the time Our Town’s play-within-a-play begins. The Stage Manager is godlike, transcending time and space, and all-knowing of fates. Through his narration, we witness the loves and struggles of the townsfolk, as well as their connection to the Great Beyond. As Stage Manager, Landon – known for his 40-year portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in SCR’s annual production of A Christmas Carol – appears safe and grandfatherly; gentle, but not too sentimental – a mirror holder to the audience.

Lester Purry and Saúl Gutierrez
Michael Manuel

One of his first gut-punches happens early in the play when he introduces us to Dr. Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs, played by Corey Jones and Kwana Martinez, respectively. Their 16-year-old son George (Evan Lugo) becomes the one the play’s focal points alongside Emily Webb (Grace Morrison), George’s neighbor and classmate. As the Stage Manager tells us a little about the doctor and his wife, it becomes quickly apparent that the two charming people we see before us, oblivious to their own fates, are now dead. It’s chilling – a primer for what’s to come. This is how Wilder, from the start, hooks us in with instant empathy. Like us, like everyone else in the play, these two have no clue what’s coming to them.

Nicole Erb
Paul Culos

While Our Town is set in a specific time and place, its themes are timeless and universal. That’s one reason why it’s played all over the world, and why some productions have cast across race, as is done here. While this might be historically far-fetched, and even contrary to the diegesis of the work itself, it signifies that all of us could easily call Grover’s Corners, as the title suggests: “our town.” I, too, was joyed to hear high school kids in the audience laughing and connecting with the budding romancers, George and Emily, as they flirted with each other at their local soda shop. Even with their smartphones in their pockets, the kids in the audience had no problem relating to characters from over a century ago. And while, at first, I thought Morrison and Lugo seemed slightly old for their roles, they quickly lost themselves in them, winning me over in the process. Morrison, as Emily, in the flurry of young love, alternates between headstrong and second-guessing. Meanwhile, Lugo’s George is eyes-aflutter and smitten. They’re adorable together, and easy to cheer on.

Jo Lopez and Michael William Gomez
Brad Culver

Still, this production has its weak links. A couple performances, for instance, are overplayed. (No need to mention names – it doesn’t matter.) At this point, I almost consider that a charm of the play’s various productions I’ve seen. Fortunately, the bulk of the cast and the production as a whole make up for it. In my experience, the material always manages to rise above. That said, standouts in this production include Michael Manuel and Elyse Mirto who, as Mr. and Mrs. Webb, bring humor and heart to Wedding Day frazzlement; as well as Corey Jones as Dr. Gibbs, whose deep voice and strong stature command, without overtaking, the stage.

The cast of South Coast Repertory's 2022 production of OUR TOWN
Kwana Martinez, Moses Villarama, Grace Morrison and Nicole Erb

Since Wilder insisted Our Town’s set be as sparse as possible to allow the life of the work – the words and performances – to take center stage, set designer Efren Delgadillo, Jr. has a rather thankless job. He holds largely true to Wilder’s conceit: a couple tables, a few chairs, and two iconic ladders are pretty much the only furniture we see. Aided by lighting designer Karyn D. Lawrence, however, Delgadillo indulges when he can, the results of which are both inspiring and impactful. Composer John Nobori helps bring Grover’s Corners to life by aurally interweaving his world-forming soundscape with our imaginations. Meanwhile, Deborah Wicks La Puma’s choir arrangements elicit a palpable quaintness as evening settles over the town. Kathryn Wilson’s costumes compliment such folksiness; while the cast’s dialects, coached by Caitlin Muelder, are evocative of the early 1900s.

Mikayla Conley

I’ve yet to see a perfect Our Town, though it insists on calling me like an eternal North Star. This production, however, is a solid one, and well-worth seeing. I laughed and cried as much as I hoped to. And I walked away moved – profoundly so. The awareness of our smallness in the grandness of life made me feel larger in spite of it. As the Stage Manager says: “Nice town, y’ know what I mean? Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.” That’s how I feel about this production; in fact, any production I’ve seen. It undersells and overdelivers. Even “rough edges,” when they exist – and they always do – are evidence, as Wilder reminds us, of our beautifully flawed humanity. There’s something uniquely comforting in that.

photos by ​​Jenny Graham/SCR

Our Town
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
ends on June 4, 2022
for tickets, call 714.708.5555 or visit SCR

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