Our Town asks you to be patient. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic documents, in such thorough detail that it dares you to feel oppressed, the anatomy of a town — its roads and residents, its birthing and loving and dying.
And just as in our own lives, grand themes and patterns don’t become apparent until decades later. So too, does it take the full three acts for Wilder’s by then devastating scheme to emerge. We reserve our closest attention for our own petty concerns. For the course of the play Wilder asks us to transfer that absorption to the characters onstage, as though they were part of ourselves. By curtainfall, they have become so.
Jenny Sullivan’s production of Our Town at the Rubicon marks the centerpiece of the theater company’s 15th anniversary season of the same name, and the 75th anniversary of the play itself.
Set designer Thomas Giamario has reinvented the performance space, adding a catwalk and onstage seating and utilizing the theater’s choir loft and enormous stained glass window. Consequently, the audience, too, becomes integrated into the performance area; entrances and exits take place around them, and audience members occasionally have to crane their necks. The actors themselves perform on a nearly bare stage with minimal props.
The most powerful production tool, apart from Marcy Froehlich’s fine costumes, becomes Peter Hunt and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting, washing the characters in purples and golds, in the rays of early morning, the glow of an extinguished candle, or the stillness of starlight. Stripped of excess, the scenes become set pieces conjured by the play’s Stage Manager, Artistic Director James O’Neil, who adds to the fluidity by occasionally stepping in to portray minor characters. The scenes are creations of memory and mood, delicate and evocative.
In the hands of a less able director and cast, this popular revival could become trite or dull. The first act doesn’t entirely escape this latter fate, despite Wilder’s noble intentions. But by the second act the characters and plot are sufficiently established to permit distinct themes to start emerging in the lives of the Webbs and the Gibbses, next-door neighbors whose children eventually grow up and fall in love.
Heading up the 30-member cast are the kids in question, the bookish Emily Webb and gadabout George Gibbs, played by The Diary of Anne Frank’s Lauren Patten and Dillon Francis. Both still young actors, they display impressive maturity and onstage chemistry, particularly in a soda-shop scene that changes the direction of their relationship. Patten is a live wire, commanding, with her luminous, forthright performance, all the attention the supposedly unbeautiful Emily doesn’t.
Stephanie McNamara and Elyse Mirto complement each other as the matriarchs, deliberate echoes who gradually resolve into distinct women. McNamara’s transformation in act three is especially powerful. Their husbands are played with gentle humor by Remi Sandri and Tom Astor. Astor in particular mines his character’s comic potential in a pre-wedding chat with Francis. Hamlet veteran Joseph Fuqua gives a compelling turn as the town drunk.
Little may “happen” in Our Town in the traditional sense, but ultimately Wilder asks us to bear witness to a town — to recognize that even the unremarkable moments of our lives are fraught with beauty. The Rubicon’s exquisite staging ensures we do just that.
Our Town, Rubicon Theatre Company, through March 31, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura, 667-2900 or rubicontheatre.org.