Thornton Wilder Summons Ghosts of 1900s America
by Alex Stimmel
As a Los Angeles native, I’m a stranger to the small-town dynamic. Yet Center REP’s version of “Our Town” immediately pulled me into the old world of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a world of friendly neighbors and close-knit community.
It also reminded me of one of the main beauties of a city like my home—the new laws, the construction, the protests—striving towards getting better, towards change. Watching Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, we remember the benefits of trying new things, rather than relying solely on tradition for answers.
Center REP’s “Our Town” draws us into charming Grover’s Corners with delightful stage design and lighting. Onstage, we see a diverse collage of desks, lights, lamps, pictures frames, and windows—the actors’ backdrop. In front, the cast uses small tables and chairs to represent kitchens, bedrooms, and parlors. Later, in Act Three, the collection of chairs and windows splits open to reveal a bright blue sky, a perfect choice for the whimsical yet foreboding climax.
The actors use pantomime to set the scene, with commentary and hand gestures instead of physical props. Our protagonist George Gibbs (Andrew Mondello) catches baseballs with only a motion of his fingers. He travels to see his fiancée Emily Webb (Madison Morgan), by making his way through imagined gardens and dining rooms with only the magic of acting.
Mondello and Morgan provide wonderful portrayals of George and Emily, dipping into town gossip and drama with charm and heart. But it is in Act Three where the acting of the cast reaches enchanting heights.
In the cemetery, Michelle Drexler as Mrs. Gibbs and Gabriel Thomas as Simon Stimson frighten us with their eerie monotones and frozen postures. They refuse to tilt their heads even a little to talk with the new arrivals. Once again, the staging and acting mingle for truly striking effects.
Paradoxically, Thornton Wilder’s static little town evokes in us a desire for change. The tight-knit families of “Our Town” seem to oppose change: the cemetery is filled with “the same names as are around here now.” Everyone still holds tightly to the past.
When Mrs. Gibbs argues with her husband about traveling to Europe for a vacation, suggesting something new, he refuses. According to Mr. Webb, ninety percent of the town’s college students return to Grover’s Corners to settle. At the graveyard, the dead sit in their chairs eternally, waiting for the moment they no longer miss living.
Yet there is hope for an end to stagnation, too. After every act, the town changes just a little, and moves forward. And despite all the usual “stars doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky,” there is one, just one, that is “straining away all the time to make something of itself.” That one star shows us the possibility of leaving Grover’s Corners and lighting the future.
“Our Town” reminds us that while change might be difficult, in the end it brings unimagined rewards. While Wilder’s characters thrive on their traditions, new ideas bring hope for improvements.
Change will come and better the lives of everyone, in small towns and big cities—another reason to enjoy the delicate charms of “Our Town.”
“Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, directed by Markus Potter, at Center REPertory Company, Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, California. Info: CenterREP.org— to May 7, 2022.
Cast: Jenna Berg, Stella Dee Ciarlantini, Michelle Drexler, Jennifer Erdmann, Collin Eugene Fletcher, Michelle Ianiro, Conlan Ledwith, John R. Lewis, Melinda Meeng, Andrew Mondello, Madison Morgan, Paul Plain, and Maya Michal Sherer.
Banner photo: The cast of “Our Town.” Photo by Kevin Berne