What can a play first produced in the late 1930s and centered on a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the 20th century possibly have to say to us today? Well, if you’ve already guessed that the play in question is Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town, you may already know too, that the answer is: quite a lot.
If you’re somehow not familiar with this oft-produced and taught play, then your exposure to the Asolo Rep’s current offering may seem at first like a mere faded snapshot of people from the distant past—a nostalgic throwback to a simpler place and time. But given all that we have been through in the past nearly two years of a pandemic, hopefully we have learned the lesson Wilder’s play has to teach us: that every moment of our “normal” daily lives is worth treasuring, because life is the most important thing we have.
Wilder’s concept for the play, pretty original back in 1938, involved fairly minimal production values, and a narrator of sorts called the Stage Manager (Kenn E. Head here), who guides us through what we are about to see in Grover’s Corners, where daily life includes mothers making breakfast, children waking up for school, a milkman making his rounds and, on one particular day, the birth of twins. Under Desdemona Chiang’s direction, Asolo Rep’s version carries that minimalism even farther; the scene opens on a bare stage with just a few stacked chairs, which members of the cast pick up as they enter, some carrying knapsacks, coats or whatever other props will be needed.
And those cast members also carry the universality of Wilder’s characters to a more contemporary point; they are Black and Asian as well as white, and not bound by the actors’ genders or ages as to the roles they play. Many in the cast are third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory students, rounding out an ensemble that represents the usual denizens of such a town: Dr. Gibbs (Greg Watanabe) and his wife (Summer Dawn Wallace); the local newspaper editor, Mr. Webb (Gregg Weiner) and his other half (Diana Coates); and their children, especially George Gibbs (Alex Benito Rodriguez) and Emily Webb (Caroline Mixon). We meet them all in Act I, then move on to the “Love and Marriage” phase in Act II, before getting to the real heart of the matter in the play’s eloquent Act III.
Head leads the ensemble with an ingratiating manner, doubling as a soda shop manager and the minister officiating at Act II’s wedding. Rodriguez’s George and Mixon’s Emily are likewise engaging, whether in their younger moments or as the adults they later become; their story is so familiar, and yet, to them, is the first and only time they will experience it.
It all seems simple, and yet it’s so eternal and heart-breaking, as we realize what Emily does in the play’s final scene, set in the town’s graveyard: that while we are living our lives, we never really understand or appreciate the poignancy of them.
Given the basic nature of the staging, Xavier Pierce’s lighting design often conveys us to where we need to be, whether it’s cheerful or spectral. Matthew Parker’s sound design brings us the noises of a rooster crowing, milk bottles clanging, or a train passing through. And Christine Tschirgi’s costume design presents the cast at first in today’s clothing of blue jeans and shirts, while clothing the actors in more traditional attire for a wedding and a funeral.
Only occasionally does the cast add too much emphasis or emotion, which can jar a bit. It’s not needed; everything we need to respond to emotionally is already there in Wilder’s words.
Our Town continues in rotating rep through March 26; for tickets, call (941) 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.