Through Nov. 12
Olney Theatre Center
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and puppets. The two aren’t usually coupled, but that hasn’t deterred innovative director/ adapter Aaron Posner from bringing them together.
In his engaging new production of the 1938 American classic about love, loss and regret in small town America now playing at Olney Theatre Center, Posner uses just seven actors to play key roles and scarily expressive puppets to play the remainder of the townspeople.
Aaron explains his inspiration in the program notes. He’d been working on another show with “Our Town’s” puppet designer Aaron Cromie when he noticed a group of puppets seated onstage during a break. Posner immediately likened the tableau to “Our Town’s” final act (the cemetery scenes which ordinarily have a group of actors sitting stock-still in straight back chairs.).
His first instinct was right. When the racially diverse puppets, about the size of small children, are seated on tiny chairs in the cemetery they indeed appear solemn and eternal. And when they’re up and moving (manipulated and animated by the equally diverse cast) they’re endearing but a little hammy.
Like many lives, “Our Town” is divided into three acts: birth, marriage and death. For the residents of Wilder’s Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, their daily lives are played out on Misha Kachman’s unadorned wooden set is a traverse stage with mirror image house facades on either end. Flat whitewashed plywood clouds hang above. The set is simple. Props are nonexistent (per Wilder’s direction). The blank space between the houses alternately serves as front yards, gardens, churches, Main Street and a graveyard.
Neighbors George Gibbs (William Vaughan) and Emily Webb (Cindy De La Cruz) have known each other all their lives. Staring dreamily at the bright moon from her bedroom window, teenage Emily Webb is clearly lovestruck. The object of her affection is George. Looking out from his window, George feels the same. In Grover’s Corner boys and girls grow up and marry. Even the few who go away to college return to the town.
Though tagged as one of the smartest girls ever to pass through Grover’s Corners’ public schools, Emily’s ambition dims as she focuses on marriage to classmate and wannabe farmer George. Yet dreams occasionally flame up, even in remote corners of New England. George’s mother, Mrs. Gibbs (Megan Anderson) longs to spend an inheritance on a trip to Paris where people “don’t speak English and don’t even want to,” but like a Fourth of July sparkler, her dream soon fizzles out. Instead, after Mrs. Gibbs’ death that legacy is spent to buy a state-of-the-art water trough for her son’s farm.
But small-town life is not for everyone. Case in point, Simon Stimson, the organist at the Congregationalist Church, here a disheveled puppet. Jolly church lady Luella Soames, also a puppet (delightfully animated by Odom), gossips about Stimson’s increasingly frequent drunkenness. Emily’s father and editor of the town paper, Mr. Webb (played by the excellent Todd Scofield), says, “Well, he’s seen a peck of trouble, one thing after another.” Later we learn that Stimson hangs himself in his barn and eventually ends up in the cemetery on the hill where proves embittered in death.
It’s been put forth by more than one Wilder scholar that Stimson represents a closeted gay man destroyed by life in a small town.
Wilder was gay, but never openly so. He’s been described as exceedingly discreet and a little self-loathing around the edges. But his friends and close associates knew he was gay. During the 1930s, he had a romantic relationship with Samuel Steward, a writer, pornographer, tattoo artist and one-time college professor, but reportedly was never too comfortable with intimacy.
Couched in a comfortable tale, Wilder talks about the vastness of the universe and mundanity of everyday life. He finds awesomeness in both. And though over the years “Our Town” has become associated with sentimentality and folksiness, it can still pack a wallop.
As stage manager, the play’s narrator who moves the drama along and freely converses with both actors and the audience, Helen Hayes Award-winning out actor Jon Hudson Odom is breezy and genial, yet markedly sincere where it matters. In the third act, he not only narrates but provides the voices for all the puppets patiently passing time in their graves. He deceptively makes it look so easy. It’s not.
Cindy De La Cruz is luminous as Emily Webb, convincingly moving from self-involved girl to young mother. She delivers her “goodbye to earth” monologue with a heartbreakingly light but moving touch.
Wilder’s play was edgy when it premiered with its scarcity of set and decoration. Director Posner whose production is faithful to the script and sanctioned by the Wilder Family Estate adds interest by paring down the cast and, of course, adding puppets. What’s more, Posner has the actors supply sound effects from the sidelines though still very much seen: cock crows, bird whistles, milk bottles clanging and an old egg beater provide the perfect sound for Mr. Webb’s manual lawnmower. The sounds of daily small-town life.