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Shaw stages an affecting ‘Our Town’

There’s no better antidote to cynicism than the famous penultimate lines of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” in which the ghost of a young woman speaks about the microscopic pleasures of life before trudging back to her grave.

“Wait!” says the girl, played in the Shaw Festival’s production by Kate Besworth. “Good-bye, Grover’s Corners … Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking … and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up.”

After the first time I heard those lines spoken aloud, in a small theater in Culver City, Calif., seven years ago, I never looked at a cup of coffee quite the same way again. While I may not explicitly think of Wilder’s plainspoken paean to small pleasures every time I catch a waft of Starbucks, the play changed the way I look at the seemingly mundane, quotidian features of life. This is the sort of thing people are often referring to when they say a piece of art changed their life. Great works of art rarely do so through grand gestures or earth-shaking revelations, but by small degrees of insight and influence that add up to a new way of looking at the world.

“Our Town” has served this purpose for millions of theatergoers since its debut in 1938, which accounts for its unshakable popularity among student, amateur and professional thespians.

The second time I heard those lines, during the May 11 opening in the Royal George Theatre, their impact was somewhat blunted – owing as much to Besworth’s idiosyncratic and rushed performance as to the fact that “Our Town” addicts will forever chase the ecstasy of their first high in vain.

“Our Town” is a theatrical drug, plain and simple. And director Molly Smith understands intrinsically. Her production, designed with Apple Store-level cleanliness and austerity by Ken MacDonald, emphasizes the quantum physics of Wilder’s play, its preoccupation with humanity’s place in the cosmos and its insistence on honoring the small moments of life.

We understand almost immediately that the residents of Grover’s Corners are being studied from afar and against a vast, cosmic backdrop suggested by MacDonald’s coolly illuminated floorboards, true to the playwright’s intention to set “the life of the village against the life of the stars.”

At the center of the story is its narrator, the mysterious, imperious and vaguely condescending stage manager, played here with the slightest overdose of affected folksiness by the gifted Shaw Fest veteran Benedict Campbell. He sets both the tone and the stage, putting us on a first-name basis with the director and the actors and in effect inviting the audience into the life and times of Grover’s Corners, circa 1901.

It’s a simple place full of simple people striving after simple joys. There’s an entire section that boils down to the value of looking at the moon, executed with aching, sepia-toned wistfulness by Besworth and Charlie Gallant, whose wide-eyed sheepishness oxygenates this interaction and another beloved scene involving a budding love affair and a couple of ice cream sodas.

Smith’s staging, despite the play’s requisite minimalist look, is filled with smart strokes. Chief among them is the absence of most props during the majority of the play until the end, when Besworth’s character looks back on her life from beyond the grave. The food and other items her character is seeing, now made real in the play-within-a-play, make an elegant point about the things we take for granted in daily life.

One thing not to take for granted is this production, which despite some uneven performances and a tone that tends a touch too far into the celestial realm, is fueled by a straightforward directorial vision focused intensely on the simple genius of Wilder’s main proposition: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”

Maybe not every minute. But at least more often now, thanks to Wilder and the Shaw.