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'Our Town' still telling us truths about today

Oct 13 2014
Leslie Gray Streeter | Palm Beach Post

"Our Town" is one of those classic American works whose power comes in its seemingly benign nature. Some seven decades after its debut, Thornton Wilder's look at the cycle of life in a quiet New England town might seem as sleepy as Grover's Corners itself. But as Palm Beach Dramaworks' current adaptation proves, its emotional gut punch sneaks up on you in the quiet. It seems useless to issue spoiler alerts for a 76 year-old play, and indeed the Stage Manager (Colin McPhillamy) matter-of-factly introduces the audience to at least two of the players with not only their names, but when and how they will die. And later, he suggests that a copy of the text be preserved to tell future generations the truths of a place in time even more essential to that specific American identity "than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight...This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying." And that's what you know going in — that these seemingly simple, plain people will grow up and marry and live and die, just like people simultaneously in dozens of towns across the country are living and dying. Director J. Barry Lewis does a beautiful job in mining that inevitability for all the pain and poignancy that comes from helplessness to stop that pain. Not knowing the specific identity of who might die doesn't so much spare the audience any pain as much as highlight the beauty in that inevitability. The play is traditionally performed on a minimal set, without props, so Paul Black's hauntingly spare design — a stark wooden scaffold with two descending staircases — becomes a character itself, transforming into various family homes, the setting for a wedding party, Heaven and a graveyard. The very spareness of it is wrenching, because Wilder's words, the competent actors and the imagination of the audience are enough to conjure the details of small town life as reliable as the newspaper and milk bottles delivered to the Webb and Gibbs families each morning. Amid those details is the simple story of Emily Webb (Emiley Kiser) and George Gibbs (Joe Ferrarelli), how they grow up together and fall in love, how they get married and how...well, again, not to spoil a 76-year-old play, but as the Stage Manager says, you know what comes after life. Again the beauty is in the wrenching realization of George and especially Emily as they come to realize their place in that sometimes fortuitous, sometimes cruel circle of life. Kiser, particularly, is heartbreaking as she navigates Emily's life stages and begs to reverse them, helplessly, against the inescapable things that the other townspeople, and Wilder, and the audience, know must stand. Dramaworks breathes new life into this reliable work, making even its inevitability fresh and stirring. The verdict: Dramaworks breathes new life into the Thornton Wilder small-town classic, making it poignant and moving all over again. A-