LOCAL ICON THORNTON WILDER’S HEART WRENCHING CLASSIC ‘OUR TOWN’ SHINES
UNDER THE DIRECTION OF CLAY DAVID
The charming town folks of Grover’s Corner have arrived at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda. Thornton Wilder’s classic OUR TOWN is now on stage through November 13th at the High Street stage. There is no way to talk about this re-staging of the Pulitzer Prize winning play without feeling the fullness of its resonance almost 78 years after its 1938 premiere on Broadway. Thornton Wilder’s classic speaks with simple, profound grace, even as it unsettles us with the American dream of what it is to live a full life. Wilder wrote “One should embrace every moment of his or her life instead of getting swept away/ one will miss those small meaningful moments and not realize it until no way to fix the problem remains.”
The brilliant Artistic Director, Clay David, has adapted this iconic American vintage theatre OUR TOWN into a stunning look at small town life. What better space to be face to face with the folks of Grover’s Corner than this quaint stage. “It is an honor to direct this play at The Altarena Playhouse at a time when many hearts in America are weary and distracted. Musical Director, Francesca Brava, and I have devotedly worked on a musical underscore to reverberate with Wilder’s plea” said David. His interpretation on this turn of the century New Hampshire town is to immerse his audience into the life of the townspeople of OUR TOWN. David created a musical score by bringing in the superb Francesca Brava as Musical Director with a vintage mood of music and songs. The company of 18 sang some wonderful songs; “Keep on the Sunnyside of Life”, “In The Shade of the Old Apple Tree”,“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “How Great Thou Art”. These songs filled the Altarena with love and charm. Wilder's tale of life and death in a quaint, fictional town comes to life in this wonderful production.
Wilder's play takes place in New England with its ordinary dialogue. Grover's Corners has no crime, except for one drunk choir director played by Tom Curtin. David cast three actors to create the roll of the stage manager, Christine Macomber, Kathy Ferber and the dapper Tom Flynn share the role and bring a new edge to the TOWN. Steering the action of the play the three dress eloquently in Sharon Bell’s vintage authentic costumes. They interact with the audience, David makes sure they get to each section of the small space, breaking the fourth wall, and bring the story right to your seat.
Wilder, who went to Berkeley High School for a short time, introduced a new form of theatre and was ahead of his time. He said "I began to feel that theater was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it did not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities." Wilder, the innovator, made sure that OUR TOWN be free space with no set, scenery, and props except for a table and chairs. When you emphasize place in theater - you drag down and limit and harness time to it.. Under such production methods the characters are all dead before the action starts." said Wilder.
The story is nostalgic and unsentimental, the three hosts matter-of-factly walk us through the lives and deaths of Grover’s Corners’ decent and common residents, offering wisdom and perspective all the while. The drama unfolds as three snapshots, with Act 1 depicting daily life in May 1901, Act 2 jumping ahead to 1904 and concerning itself with the folly of love and marriage, and the final act taking us to the village graveyard in 1913 so the dead can have an opportunity to share their views on the living. David formats the Act 1 and 2 seamlessly into each other - mainstreaming the story to a tight two hour performance. The music and chorus are excellent and the cast proves to be authentic and sensitive.
The two central families include local favorites Sally Hogarty and Charles Evans as the Webbs and Mary Bishop and Mark Shepard as the Gibbs. The young couple, who begin as teens, are well played by Krista Joy Serpa and Drew Woodson. They create an emotional and winsome edge to Emily and George. Three stage managers speak directly to the audience describing the details of the community of the small town. All this is staged in accordance with the playwright’s decree of simplicity: a bare-bones set, very few props. Wilder preferred audience members use their imagination and, using their own personal memories of a simpler time and place. The writing is so good and the plain folk characters are so clearly defined that the play can easily pass for low weight sweet soup opera with the main drama just a town drunk that is not spoken about.
Serpa as young Emily Webb and Woodson as young George Gibbs flirt over imaginary ice cream sodas; the result is captivating. They get married after they both graduate from high school and their lives go on. Mark Shepard, who is terrific as Dr. Gibbs, has mastered his performance, and emotions. When the talented Joe Mallon as the stiff, unsmiling Constable Warren gives a dry, long winded no crime report, you understand this small town is quiet. The terrific Sally Hogarty as Mrs. Webb delivers the universal mother's yell to her kids to get downstairs to eat breakfast. Hogarty is exceptional in the role and a mom we all can remember. Charles Evans as Mr. Webb is well meaning and important to the family story and history. The ensemble is foolproof and includes Jude Marietta, Mary Bishop, Emma Curtin, Bruce Kaplan, Henry Mills, Maggie Tennebaum, Joan Pugh Newman, Tom Curtin and Joe Mallon; all do fine work in their supporting and featured roles.
The craft team for this polished show includes lighting designer, Courtney Johnson, who brings the mood from bright to moon light. The final act is set under a star filled sky and Johnson brings that midnight look to the Altarena Stage. Sharon Bell’s costumes are vintage perfect especially on the three stage managers. David is surely part of the design of the show and it is simple and warm as if we are on stage with the town folk of Grover's Corner. The final act takes us to the cemetery and we learn many of the townspeople have been laid to rest including the young bride. Emily Webb dead and remembering her simple life says "Goodbye, world. Goodbye, Grover's Corners ... Mama and Papa. Goodbye to clocks ticking ... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths ... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings realize life while they live it every, every minute?" Classic Thornton Wilder.
Adding to the history of this American classic is the beauty of the present. Thornton Wilder’s classic speaks with simple, profound grace, even as it unsettles us with the reality of what it is to live a human life. Life is wonderful– and terrible, beautiful and cruel; it has always been so, and there are no easy answers. Wilder understands that. Theater at its best provides solace, a sense of community, and insight into the American Dream. Clay David's brilliant OUR TOWN is just such a production. Tickets are going fast, and be sure to follow the links below to APH next production a musical THE TAFFETAS.
Altarena Playhouse Presents
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Clay David, Music Director Francesca Brava
Through November 13th
Running Time 2 hours One intermission
1409 High Street, Alameda, CA, 94501.
Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/altarena/
Photo’s by - Jim Norrena