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Anthony Chase: Less is more in ART's 'Our Town'

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is one of the great American plays. First performed in 1938, this story of small town life between 1901 and 1913 in fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire earned the author the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes and has been in the American repertoire constantly ever since.

With the central plot focused on the romance and marriage of teenagers George and Emily, and its minimal scenic requirements, the play is a perennial favorite at high schools and community theaters. For many, memories of soggy and sentimental productions have created an aversion to the play. Handled properly, however, “Our Town” is marvelous.

The current American Repertory Theater of WNY production, with its able cast and confident staging by Matthew Refermat, certainly fills the bill, allowing us to delight in Wilder’s minimalist vision, his vivid characters and his important message that tragedy is an inevitable part of life, and every day is a gift.

The production is not without flaws, and at times seems tossed together. The miming of props, which I have seen done with such haunting precision that nonexistent objects seem to materialize before our eyes, here seems haphazard and careless. New England accents, deployed in other productions to heighten the language, on this occasion tend to muddle meaning and intention.

On the plus side, Refermat delivers a faithful rendering of the script, and it is delightful to see such a pleasing mix of experienced actors and new faces populate the stage.

As “The Stage Manager,” Verneice Turner adeptly keeps the proceedings moving and makes sense of a huge tumble of words, even as she delivers a somewhat mannered reading. It is fun to see a woman of color play the narrator of “Our Town,” an iconic white guy role. Her presence often adds a layer of contemporary insight or wry irony in a town where 18th-century gravestones bear the same names as the current residents – “English brachiocephalic blue-eyed stock.”

Shayna Raichilson-Zadok as Mrs. Gibbs and Kerrykate Abel as Mrs. Webb, the respective mothers of George and Emily, are highly satisfying. These performances, brilliant in their simplicity, bring the characters to life with the flashes of reality the script requires, while hitting all the humorous notes. Indeed, these women become the heart of the play.

Jack Horohoe, is a particular treat as Emily’s father, Mr. Webb. He lands the scene in which Webb gives marital advice to young George with a perfect blend of wit and wisdom.

Moments like this remind us, often in startling ways, of the genius of Thornton Wilder, writing at a time when votes for women were new, about a time when women voted “indirect.” “Our Town” is unique in providing a taste of “post-war American realism” before the war, coupled with the meta-theatricality of Pirandello or Brecht.

Emily and George are arguably two of the most difficult roles in the American canon. The shift from awkward teen to uncomfortable adult is a difficult journey to travel – even on stage. Kit Kuebler and Russell Holt do admirably, bringing warmth and humor to their portrayals.

Shakora Purks takes an amusing turn as milkman Howie Newsome. Ryan Kaminski as tragic choir director; John F. Kennedy as the constable; Victor Morales as Doc Gibbs; Vivian Hannah Porter as Rebecca Gibbs; and young Ayden Herreid as every boy, all support the storytelling commendably.

I would like to have seen Refermat handle the play’s meta-theatricality with a firmer hand. Some gestures are sublime, like Karen Grace Harty breaking the fourth wall as Mrs. Soames to enthuse about the wedding of George and Emily.

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At other times, it seems as if the rehearsal time was rushed. When The Stage Manager thanks characters for recreating moments from their lives, the actors, neither acknowledging nor ignoring this polite dismissal, simply clomp off stage obliviously.

Moments intended to resound with great profundity are sometimes glossed over – as with young George’s realization that he doesn’t have enough money to pay for the ice cream sodas he and Emily have just enjoyed, prompting an astute and knowing response from Mr. Morgan, who trusts young George to pay him back within “10 years, but not a day over” – the older generation of this eternal town, perceptively helping the younger advance into their adult roles.

Lighting is efficient but not really expressive. The minimal staging is sometimes an excuse for a slapdash scattering of ladders and furnishings – but I must say, the eclectic array of chairs grouped across the center of the wide TheaterLoft stage made an exquisite and reassuringly eloquent stage picture.

Indeed, any failings of the production are quickly redeemed by Wilder himself, who is given a respectful and ultimately winning outing at ART of WNY.

THEATER REVIEW

"Our Town" by ART of WNY

3 stars (out of four)

Runs through Jan. 13 at 545 Elmwood Ave. Tickets are $20 general admission, $10 for industry and students at artofwny.org or call 983-4345.

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