by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Theatre Jacksonville opened its annual Summer Classic in San Marco on Friday, August 19, which will run through Saturday September 3. This play is not part of the regular season and TJ has special pricing for the classic each year. Thanks to the generosity of corporate sponsors, Tickets are $15.00 for adults, while students and regular season subscribers can purchase tickets for only $10.00. All performances are at 2032 San Marco Blvd. Call 396-4425 for reservations or visit www.theatrejax.com
Our Town by Thornton Wilder debuted in 1938, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has remained a remarkable and much performed theatre piece since then. Set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire from 1901 to 1913, it is an extraordinary story about an ordinary small town with ordinary people doing ordinary things. Theatre Jacksonville’s performance is extraordinary and is not to be missed.
There isn’t a person old enough in Jacksonville to remember small towns as they existed in the early 1900s. I am sure it is a shock to students who see the play to find that at one time, life went on with no cars, no television, no radios, no iPads, no computers, no cell phones and no fast food places. A big date was going to the local baseball game or to the drug store for a strawberry soda.
Our journey to Grover’s Corners is guided by a narrator known as the Stage Manager. This role is performed marvelously in a commanding but kindly manner by award-winning veteran actor Rick DeSpain. He speaks directly to the audience and from time to time interjects comments about a character’s background or future, and the on-stage action as he introduces all the characters in their daily pursuits.
We learn a lot about the lives of many of the townspeople, but the plot is woven around teenagers Emily Webb (Kayce Clark) and George Gibbs (Bradley M. Akers), next door neighbors who shyly discover they like each other, then fall in love and eventually marry. Remarkable performances by Ms. Clark and Mr. Akers tug at our hearts and are endearing.
Superb acting is to be found everywhere in this production. Outstanding portrayals include: Kara Matthews as the ebullient Mrs. Gibbs, mother of George and wife of the dependable town physician, Dr. Gibbs (Mark Roberts); Mrs. Webb (Sarah K. Bartlo), mother of Emily, who is married to Editor Webb (Bill White), the good-humored publisher of the local newspaper; bewildered and long-winded Professor Willard (Robert Blade); Newspaper Boy Joe Crowell (Jackson Roberts); Milkman Howie Newsome (David Eger); and Simon Stimson (Joshua Taylor), the town’s choir director who has a drinking problem. The population of Grover’s Corners numbers 2,642 and you will get to know a number of other residents. Others in this cast of 26 are Kaiya Matthews, Jacob Sims, Jennifer Carter, Gray Houston, Lindsey Weirich, Brenda Chapman, Jason Canning, Michael Fisher, Matthew Ubl, Bobby Parker, Virginia G. Pierce-Kelly, Martha Lange and Annie Garner.
What sets this play apart from probably any you have ever seen is the fact that, in accordance with the playwright’s stage directions, there is no scenery or props except for tables, chairs, two ladders, and two unadorned wooden trellises. When the actors prepare food or eat, they pantomime the utensils and the food. Milk deliveries are made by a horse and cart that you never see and the milkman rattles bottles that aren’t there. In the orchestra pit, you will see a lone figure at a table with all kinds of gadgets as sound effects man Nick Despres creates an abundance of familiar sounds, including train whistles, those rattling milk bottles, plates and cutlery clattering on tables, and a wind storm.
Jeff Wagoner created the various stage levels and added some very evocative lighting, including highlights for Emily’s wedding and a dramatic recreation of a church interior. Sean Pendry, hidden away backstage provided the church choir with music as the organist. Lori Drake is the production stage manager.
Another of the stars of this show has to be the costume design by Kimberley Rowan. The color palette is one of muted tones, in grays, soft creams, browns, and taupe, with an occasional deep rose or burnt orange. The men wear vests and derby hats, young boys wear knickers, and the women dress in long skirts, with pinafore tops, or fitted jackets for more formal occasions. Emily’s wedding dress is stunning. The many costumes anchored the play firmly in time and place.
The play has three acts with two ten-minute intermissions, but never fear, this is not Shakespeare and the entire show with both intermissions runs two hours and fifteen minutes.
You almost feel that you are out of town as Director Andrew Dickson has so many actors making their Theatre Jacksonville debuts. It is wonderful to see such good new talent on the local stages. Under the sensitive and perceptive direction of Mr. Dickson, every one of the actors is outstanding and as a result this production of Our Town is rousing, absorbing and passionately honest. We were especially appreciative of the director’s choice to present a traditional interpretation of the drama, firmly based on the playwright’s script. Our Town works because it draws the audience into the cycle of everyday joys and yes, tragedy. The third act is sad but we will leave the details for you to discover rather than spoiling it in case you have never experienced Our Town.
There is a lot of humor in this play but the play on a deeper level evokes thoughtful questions. Emily has one line that lingered with us long after we exited the theatre. She asked of the narrator, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?”
Don’t miss Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece Our Town.
by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM