In today’s political climate, it seems that there is a desire to return to simplicity. Virginia Stage Company’s production of Our Town allows the audience a temporary escape to an uncomplicated lifestyle. With a stellar cast, a minimalistic set and an unconventional use of the space, director Chris Hanna has created a unique tour de force at the historical Wells Theatre.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town leads the audience through daily life, love and marriage, then finally death in a small down called Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire 1901. Using metatheatrical devices, the audience is made part of the setting as the Stage Manager narrates the story.
What makes this production different from others in that Director Chris Hannah expands upon the script and includes stories of Virginia residents, further emphasizing the impact of our lives on others.
Ellen Harvey, playing the Stage Manager, captured my attention from the moment she stepped out on stage. The way she told the story made me feel like I was actually there, rather than just listening to it being told. Justin Keyes and Missy Downe play opposite each other as the play’s two young love birds: George and Emily. They bring to life the innocence of youth. Downe shows the naïve girlishness of adolescence and Keyes reproduced the believable nervousness of a boy in love. Kirsti J. Meyers and Nikki e. Walker play the two matriarchal characters: Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs. Both actresses portray the typical, mindless everyday routines of a mother and wife in 1901. Felicia Fields depicted a believable little sister to George in her role of Rebecca, with her playfulness and bickering. I saw a parallel between them and my own older brother and me. Fields and Keyes portrayed an authentic sibling dynamic, that added an additional layer to the depiction of daily life in the play. Walker and Beatty Barnes, Jr.- who plays Mrs. Gibb’s husband Dr. Gibbs- gives an insight into the restlessness of parents as they send their children on their own. Walker portrays a frantic mother, worried for her son, while Barnes portrayed a calmer father, instilling wisdom in his son and easing his nerves. Also worth noting is the performance of John Forkner, who- playing Emily’s father, Mr. Webb- effectively portrays the heightened discomfort of having to talk to his daughter’s fiancée in a humorous scene between him and Keyes. Like much of the show, this made me think about my own life, and how my own father would react in a similar situation, again proving the themes at the heart of the show.
With the audience on two sides of a nearly empty stage, I was a little bit nervous to see how the actors- specifically Harvey because the role of the Stage Manager involves a lot of addressing the audience directly- would relay the reality of each scene. In a seat on the stage, I thought I would see the backs of heads the whole time, yet the actors succeeded in playing to both sides of the audience; I was able to clearly hear each word with very few exceptions, and I never felt like I was staring at the back of any actor’s head for an extended period of time. Instead of using a traditional set, ladders were used to depict the two characters’ bedrooms. Six feet off the ground, the actors talked back and forth, allowing myself and the rest of the audience to witness the young love blooming between the characters as the act went on. With such a bare stage, I was unsure about how the realness of life would be portrayed but in fact, the bare stage made the action more immediate. Props to Scenic Designer Narelle Sissons for creating such a simple yet real environment on a stage furnished with just tables and chairs. Costume designer Jane Alois Stein created outfits that looked natural for each character and fit into their lives.
Lighting designer Akin Ritchie created a comfortable setting, with lights for each act- love, life and death- bringing a realness to the stage. Director Chris Hanna and Sound Designer J.C. Nigh cleverly integrated stories of Virginia residents with #OurTown757. People in our community submitted voice recordings, telling their stories of locals who had impacted their lives and the community. My heart was full as I listened to the remembrance stories of people who had touched the lives of Virginians that were coming through the speakers and filling the theatre. I applaud Hanna and Nigh for seamlessly and creatively adding a 757 value to the production.
Some people might find Our Town boring; it is easy to think that the plot isn’t going anywhere. I, however, believe that the cast and crew did an amazing job at capturing the essence of the simplicity of daily life. At the end of the play, there was a moment of silence, of stillness, as I allowed the words and message of the play to wash over me. By utilizing all the space of the theatre, as well as a near empty stage, the themes of life, love and death were truly resonating with the audience, and making all of us think about the significance of our daily lives.
The entire cast and creative team of Our Town have created a touching production with the heartfelt, authentic performances, a simplistic set and a unique approach to theatrics, I left the theater feeling the lasting effects of the beautiful piece of theater. For those of us who would like to return to simplicity in the hassle of daily life, this play is a must see. The candor allows you to see the true value of daily life and to stop for a moment and appreciate it.
Virginia Stage Company’s Our Town runs at the Well’s Theatre through November 4, 2018.
Virginia Stage Company is southeastern Virginia’s leading theatre destination, serving an audience of over 70,000 annually both at the Wells Theatre and throughout the community. Virginia Stage Company’s mission is to “enrich, educate, and entertain the region by creating and producing theatrical art of the highest quality.”