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Classic ‘OUR TOWN’ gets nice traditional read at Blank Canvas

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
I consider OUR TOWN, which is now being performed at Blank Canvas, to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It not only won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, it has become one of the most performed and studied plays in the English language.  It, along with Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN, Eugene O’Neil’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Tennessee Williams’ STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and William Inge’s DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, continue to be listed as the best written modern American plays by theatre experts.

On the surface, the play appears to be a rendition of the daily activities found in small town America in the first third of the twentieth century.  In reality, it is a tribute to basic humanistic views of life.  Wilder’s stated intent is to make each person “become a personal witness to the everyday activities that we have seen before, read about before, even lived before, but often taken for granted.”

Each time I see, direct, teach or have appeared in OUR TOWN, I bask in the after-glow and find myself trying to understand and appreciate the potential of life.

Playwright Thornton Wilder, who was brought up in Hong Kong and China, was imbued with an Asian perfectionist attitude. His education at Oberlin and Yale centered on the classics. These influences are deeply imbedded into the ‘OUR TOWN’ script. The stage manager represents the classical Greek chorus and the guide in Asian theatrical forms. The direct speeches to the audience create a theatricalism that stops the viewers from transferring their thoughts to the play’s characters and focuses the spotlight on themselves. He is exact in his descriptions of the sun rising and setting and where stores and houses are placed on the stage.

Wilder tells exactly where things are on stage, but they aren’t there…no drug store, no horse, just oral references to them.  He states that Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, where the play takes place, is located at 42 degrees, 40 minutes latitude and 70 degrees, 37 minutes.  Exact?  Hardly. That would not place the town anywhere near New Hampshire.  In another scene, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are stringing beans that have just been picked from the garden. Sorry, but beans don’t grow in New Hampshire in May. Why does Wilder do this? He wants the play to carry a universal message. This is not about the existence of those in Grover’s Corners, it is about all of us, all of our lives.

Wilder writes exact stage directions in the script. No real scenery, he instructs.  Usually two trellises, two ladders, some chairs, and 2 tables are used. The New England dialect is another specific device. The “ay yehs” and other area sounds are on the printed page.

It is here that you must be alerted to decisions made by Blank Canvas’s director, Pat Ciamacco, who has thrown many traditional Wilder devices to the wind. In this production, no ladders, no trellises, no New England accents.

Ciamacco has given the show a universal appeal by using clothing which doesn’t represent the era.  Speech patterns are a mix of a little flatlander, Ohio twangs, and even a little southern drawl is heard.  The stage manager is more a commentator than a town spokesman.   The pantomiming is representational, not presentational.  Normally in pantomime, actors realize that objects have weight, drinking vessels have liquid in them, opening windows takes effort…not so in this production.  They feign what they are doing, no attempt at reality.  Ciamacco gives us an understandable interpretation, which anyone except a Wilder devotee should find quite easy to watch and easily gain Wilder’s message.

Wilder divided the play into three segments, each with a clear title: Act I: Daily Life, Act II: Love and Marriage, and Act III: Death.   When the late Frank Sinatra did a 1955 television play-with-music version of the script, he was the stage manager and opened each act with a song based on Wilder’s titles.

The first act’s opening tune states, “You will lose your heart, I promise you in this, our two-by-four town, welcome-on-the-door-town, if you will make it your town too.”  This shares with the audience that the story is a universal tale, with personal implications.

Other songs in the television version were “Love and Marriage,” the preview to George and Emily’s love story.  (Paul Newman played George and Bowling Green grad, Eva Marie Saint, was Emily.)  “Look to Your Heart,” the show’s last song, highlighted that Wilder’s ideas were meant for each of us to consider.

The Blank Canvas’s casts’ acting levels are inconsistent.  There are some very strong performances and some less proficient, but, because of Ciamacco’s directing approach, the production works without every cast member being exactly on target.

Strong performers are John J. Polk (Dr. Gibbs), Laura Starnik (Mrs. Gibbs), Lynna Metrisin (Mrs. Webb), Perren Hedderson (George), Makenna Weyburne (Rebecca), Becca Frick (Emily) and Lance King (Mr. Webb).

There are some excellent scene highlights.  The before the wedding breakfast conversation between Mr. Webb and George is delightful, as is the talk between Emily and her mother, when Emily inquires about whether she is pretty and finds out she is pretty enough for all “normal purposes.”

The final act’s message segment when Emily’s request to return to earth after she dies, and the second act drug store scene are emotionally compelling.  Emily’s goodbye to earth speech evoked sobs from the woman sitting next to me.  It brings Wilder’s illuminating writing and his message when the now-dead Emily returns to earth to re-experience her twelfth birthday.  She quickly realizes that time goes so fast and people don’t look at each other and states, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?”

The drug-store scene is a warm moment in the play when true love is recognized and realized.  Wilder has written it with tenderness and is not false or overly sentimental and highlights that love comes out of daily life.

Harlowe R. Hoyt, in his review of a production of ‘OUR TOWN’ at the Jewish Community Center, stated in the April 25, 1958 Plain Dealer, “The burgeoning of love at the soda fountain between Ilene Latter and Roy Berko is one of the most delightful scenes of the play.” About the Perren Hedderson and Becca Frick’s enactment of the same scene I say, “ditto!”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen the classic OUR TOWN before, or have seen it, but need a good shot of appreciation for life, go see the Blank Canvas production.  Director Patrick Ciamacco sets it out before you, plain and simple, doing nothing to get in the way of Wilder’s intent and purpose.  Nice job!

Up next at Blank Canvas….BAT BOY:  THE MUSICAL, which is horror-spoof and big-hearted satire on American prejudice.  It’s a love story with a wicked bite!