Intimate production at Miners Alley merges the audience into the action in the Thornton Wilder stalwart
Millions of gallons of water passed by the old mill. A few thousand breakfasts were served. Twins are born; an old man dies. A boy and a girl fall in love, and a few years later another baby is born. The mother dies in childbirth.
The earth continues its travel around the sun, the moon around the earth, that dang teenager still hasn’t chopped wood for his mother.
So it goes in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a cornerstone of American theater that quietly asks “What’s this all about?” The answer, it would seem, is “Not much, but enjoy the ride.”
It’d been long enough ago that I’d last seen this play that I was able to enjoy it as a new experience. It begins in 1901, which got me immediately reflecting on my grandmother Annamarie Miller, who was born in that year. Back then, electricity and cars were new things that not many people had.
How can it be that my life in the digital world could ever have intersected with that of someone from the horse-and-buggy days?
Those are the kinds of questions “Our Town” is meant to inspire. Told in three acts with little in the way of sets and props, the 1938 Pulitzer winner is propelled by the Stage Manager, who acknowledges the audience and the theater in which the play is being performed while walking us through the goings-on in town.
Jim Hunt takes on this role with a gentle earnestness that has the audience from the get-go. Director Len Matheo has this production set in the round (or, rather, ‘in the rectangle’) so that the audience is in places mixed in with the actors. Before the play even begins, Hunt is mingling with the crowd, moving chairs around.
We’re all in this together, Hunt seems to suggest, and this could be you.
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Wilder constructed the play so that most people could find someone to identify with. There are the harried moms (Lisa DeCaro as Mrs. Gibbs and Shauna Earp as Mrs. Webb); the overworked professional (Rory Pierce as Dr. Gibbs); the teens in love (Hannah Haller and Laurence Katz as Emily and George); and a host of others.
For a small stage, it’s a big cast with a lot going on, but Matheo’s careful blocking has all the traffic moving smoothly. As the script dictates, the real action is in the little things: the kids scrambling down the stairs, late for breakfast for the hundredth time. The choir director (David Jensen), drunk again! The milkman (Dixon White) right on time, his cow in tow. Dr. Gibbs out all night delivering twins.
In the hurly-burly of everyday life, these moments may seem inconsequential. “Our Town” says the opposite: It’s this little stuff that matters most.
Matheo did a nice job casting this show, and there are quite a few fine performances. Hannah Haller is a standout as Emily. In some sense, her story is the most paradigmatic. We see her as a precocious kid, a starry-eyed teen, a bride and, not long after the wedding, an early inhabitant of the town’s hilltop graveyard.
Haller is an arresting presence on stage, an impressive actress who I remembered from her strong performance in “The Wolves” at Boulder Ensemble Theatre last fall. She’s got a lot of emotional scenes but doesn’t go over the top with the drama, and she hits her marks consistently. With Emily stunned at her early death, we see her skillfully pivot from carefree high schooler to, well, a corpse — conversing with other deceased who counsel her to chill out. Nothing matters anymore, and the living are oblivious to what really does.
The lanky Katz plays George with plenty of youthful goofiness while still portraying a deeper center we see more of later in the play.
Miners Alley mainstay Josh Hartwell does nice work as the newspaper editor and Emily’s dad Mr. Webb. And while he should’ve been my mirror into this play, I found myself drawn to DeCaro and Earp as the world-weary moms. I’ve always been the breakfast guy in my house, and I’ve sometimes thought about how many cups of tea I’ve prepared, how many lunches I’ve packed. Over and over and over, and done with love every time.
DeCaro is a familiar face at Miners Alley, a versatile and gifted actress who commands attention with or without lines. On the other side of the daily struggle is newcomer Earp as Mrs. Webb, a former New York actress with a long theatrical CV who’d taken off a few years go raise her son. She’s great, and I look forward to seeing her in other productions.
“Our Town” requires a number of child actors, and Matheo is skilled at directing them. His own daughter Ella Matheo does a fine job as George’s younger sister, Rebecca. She doesn’t have a ton of time on stage, but she makes every line count. Sam Charney, another MAP newcomer, plays several characters plus the unfortunate Wally Webb — another premature visitor to the graveyard.
And Brody Lineaweaver — who I once walked the boards with up in Breckenridge in 2011 — brings a lot of energy to the role of Joe Crowell.
“Our Town” is a beautifully written play, a moving story with multiple layers of meaning to cogitate on once you leave the theater. It was Jim Hunt’s line as the Stage Manager, though, that stuck with me the longest:
“Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense.”
And that, Wilder suggests, is the good stuff.