Ensemble member with Charlie Sexton in Our Town. Photo: CTC
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Jake Allen Miller
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I have seen Thornton Wilder’s Our Town several times and its status as one of the most important American plays of the 20th century is reaffirmed each time. Even though it is set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire between 1901 and 1913 it speaks to a universal concept of community that has a broad appeal.
This new production from Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC) is loyal to the text while using a deeply atmospheric contemporary score created and played live by Jon Becraft and Brandon Cox from behind a translucent scrim. The pair also contribute live sound design with foley-like effects, but it is the haunting almost-ambient music that is most important in this Our Town.
The production is spare, made up of folding tables and chairs, and the cast wears their own clothes, so there is even more space around the character interaction for the sound design to bring a new dimension to Wilder’s play. The narrative is the same: a series of scenes that track two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs, in particular the relationship of George Gibbs and Emily Webb from childhood through romance and marriage and more. A lot is made of the mundane routine of small town life but Wilder is not being satirical. He is celebrating old, bedrock values and the essential importance of family and community.
Where he broke new ground is in a metatheatricality in which the play is narrated by a character labeled “The Stage Manager” who fully understands that this a stage play and frequently breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly. That meta aspect lends intself to extension, and Becraft and Cox’s sound design suggests that the Stage Manager is even more of an otherworldly figure than usual. Here he seems even more detached and a dispassionate observer of humankind.
Charlie Sexton’s performance in the role is so laid back and easygoing as to reinforce this idea. Congenial and engaged, especially with other Grover’s Corners citizens, but this was the first time I wondered, albeit facetiously, if the Stage Manager was indeed a supernatural being, a Time Lord (Dr. Who fans?), or a god? After all, he does speak with the dead.
However fantastical that sounds, I always welcome a take on a classic that forces new thoughts and might even make it all seem new again. Miller’s work doesn’t quite go that far, but it is a fresh, enticing rendition.
The other cast is made up of students, and the work reflects the range of experience within CTC’s Academy program. The strongest performances were Lachlan Apple and Lillian Cobb as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, and I also thought Lauren Wood was a thoughtful Mrs.Webb. As George and Emily, Nolan “Davis” Brown is suitably callow and then rocked by the harsh realities of life, while Summer Clark is more pensive and conflicted than most Emilys, giving her experiences in the third act an existential anguish.
One other thought I had while watching this production was of the student-teacher relationship between Sexton and the other cast members. As the Stage Manager has ultimate control in Wilder’s conceit, it could be argued it is an extension of the power dynamic underlying the offstage relationships. The age difference and authority of Sexton, however easy and relaxed his presence, introduces yet another dimension to Wilder’s metatheatricality and when the Stage Manager ruminates on the passage of time and the cycles of life; people growing up and moving through those cycles, Sexton could be reflecting on the students that have been in his charge over the past decades.
Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938, and has been praised time and again, and this production proves that it is as sturdy and resilient as any of the plays of William Shakespeare, a work that can inspire inventiveness and remain provocative more than 80 years after it was written.
Featuring Lachlan Apple, Nolan “Davis” Brown, Nathan Bukowski, Colin Brandt, Summer Clark, Lillian Cobb, Sierra Connor, Anya Cullen, Lucy Dingman-Root, Laura Gibson, Trace Henderson, Jamie Heberle, Sophia Hyde, Ella Kozoll, Stevie Mears, Emma Morris, Riley O’Bryan, Sam Payne-Young, Bailey Raisor, Charlie Sexton, Roman Scott, Zachary Wertz, Lauren Wood.
October 14, 15, 21, & 22 @ 7:30 pm
October 15, & 22 @ 2:00 pm
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.