The Red Moon Theatre Festival made its North Florida debut February 27 to March 1 2015, at the Ritz Theatre and Museum in downtown Jacksonville. This brand new festival, which hopes to grow into an annual event, was the collaboration of Jacksonville playwright Ian Maris and the Ritz Theatre.
A full stage production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning ground breaking play, “Our Town”, was an excellent choice to launch this new adventure in theatre. Wilder also won a Pulitzer for his “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942), and wrote the “The Matchmaker” in 1954. The latter was to be transformed into one of the most popular musicals of all time, “Hello Dolly”.
I attended Friday morning performance staged for teenage students from five local schools. The play has been extremely popular in schools and universities, since it paints a unique picture of the fictional town of Grover’s Corners New Hampshire from l901 to l913. No one in the audience including yours truly, can remember small towns as they existed in the early l900s. I am sure it came as a shock to audience members, that there were no cell phones, television, no I Pads, or computers, and cars were just around the corner. A big date was going to the drug store for a soda or going to a local baseball game.
Director Mairs’ casting was exceptional, and featured a number of actors he has directed in the many plays he has written and staged locally over the years.
The play’s narrative was hosted by Stage Manager played by Robert Arleigh White, who appeared in Maris’s play “Summer Shorts” in 2009, and most recently was in 5 & Dime’s “Freud’s Last Session” as Dr Freud. White was excellent as the gregarious guide to the events of this small town.
The Stage Manager introduces the audience to the town and its people and narrates all the scenes. He focuses on the households of Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Eugene Lindsey & Vandana Bhide) and Mr. and Mrs. Webb (Leonard Alterman & Harolyn Sharpe), who are neighbors and united when their off spring George (Stephen RuffinStephen Ruffin) and Emily are attracted to each other. Emily was played by Emily Auwaerter, who we saw in a featured role in Maris’ “The Learning Curve” at Theatre Jacksonville. George and Emily fall in love and get married and interact with different townspeople in their daily lives.
Interesting characters abound in this story. There is the talkative Professor Willard (Brad Trowbridge), Howie the milkman (Chris Farrell who was also the behind the scenes Stage manager of this production), the hard drinking choir director Simon Stimson (Kevin Roberts) Constable Warren (Sam Brown), Rebecca Gibbs (Cassidy Spencer), Wally Gibbs (Gibson Grimm) Mrs. Soames (Suzi Vasquez), Sam Craig (Nick Kirby) and Joe Crowell (Connor Warmuth).
In the first act, we meet the people, the second act is about love & marriage, and the third act is about death. The cycle of life. We see the beauties of small town America but they are people, and some die from disease or bodily faults and some commit suicide or die in war.
It is a play that makes us as an audience draw parallels between our own lives and the lives of the residents of Grover’s Corners whether we want to or not. “ Our Town” looks at the human condition in a special way; the simple human truth, the exuberance and candor. Indeed, Our Town is a very revelatory show.
As per the wishes of Mr. Wilder’s stage directions, there was no scenery or props except for tables, chairs and two ladders. The action of preparing food, eating, cutting the lawn etc was pantomimed. To keep costs down, Director Mairs had his cast in modern dress (many of the women made several changes of attire). There were various sound effects during the show, which added to the ambiance.
The Ritz Theatre proved to a marvelous venue for this show. I sat in the very last row and the acoustics were excellent. I at first thought that the cast was miked they projected so well.
Kudos to the outstanding direction and performances by all the cast members. As many times as I have seen this play, it remains haunting, sensitive and beautiful. I have seen productions at Theatre Jacksonville, Players by the Sea and Jacksonville University and “Our Town” remains in my mind one of the true classics of live theatre.