Asolo Rep Stages Classic “Our Town” with Lightness and Grace

Who knew that “Our Town,” a theater classic, could have such a huge impact in our conflict and COVID-ridden era? Apparently, Michael Donald Edwards and later, his chosen director Desdemona Chiang, did. “Our Town” is an eighty-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning play by Thornton Wilder about small town life that many of us first saw in high school. Chiang reputedly was hesitant to take on the task of directing the play, which could have been a dusty, out-of-date production in less deft hands, yet after re-reading it over the summer, she agreed to take it on. Her gentle interpretation and light touch with the stark script has reinvigorated the show into a highly commendable and emotionally powerful production.

The stage manager, played by Kenn E. Head, is our guide on a journey through this metatheatrical drama; and his role is to draw our attention to the theatricality of the production itself. He welcomes us to Sarasota, Florida and introduces us to the cast of characters in a small town, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire while giving us a basic primer on what life is like at the turn of the century. We meet the town’s doctor and newspaper editor and their wives and children as well as the newspaper boy, the milkman, and the man in town who has been “overserved.” The stage manager’s omnipresence throughout the show serves to underscore how important the stage can be in helping us to make sense some of the most important touchstones in our lives. The dark pallor of impending death that has formed a shadow lurking in the corner of our lives is treated with graceful inevitability by the “Our Town” cast and its stalwart director.

At one point, a “reporter” in the audience calls out to ask whether there is anything of beauty or culture in Grover’s Corners, and the stage manager answers that there really isn’t save for the town’s amateur church choir. I thought to myself, I can’t imagine living in a place without the arts. Yet, Wilder thought there was something beautiful enough in the day-to-day lives of this wholesome community that was worthy of artistic expression, thus creating one of the most watched plays in history. It is refreshing to become acquainted with people who have simple problems and enjoy simple pleasures; and as we spend more time with them it is readily apparent that their lives are indeed very profound.

Alex Benito Rodriguez and Caroline Mixon (photo by Cliff Roles)

The youthful cast brought exuberance to the stage, and their energy helps fill in the empty spaces on the limited propless set. Summer Dawn Wallace as Julia Gibbs and Caroline Mixon as her next-door neighbor and eventual daughter-in-law, Emily Webb bring so much light to their respective roles, and their characters are remarkable for their yearning to go beyond the simplicity of their lives. Mrs. Gibbs is a caring wife and mother who wishes to visit Paris before she dies. She has been offered a large sum of money for an old piece of furniture that she calls her “legacy” that she wishes to spend on an adventure with her overworked husband, the town’s doctor.

Wallace brings such a sweetness and grace to the character as she fusses mistily about her children, especially her son George, and longs wistfully for a romantic getaway. Her best friend’s daughter, Emily is a clever young girl who wants to learn as much as possible, however, as a product of her circumstances, she doesn’t understand what is driving her thirst for knowledge. George Webb, played with a charming innocence by Alex Benito Rodriguez, is smitten by his lovely, thoughtful neighbor and ultimately proclaims his love for her over milkshakes. Their story becomes the centerpiece of the play.

Cast of “Our Town” (photo by Cliff Roles)

The connection among the characters is strikingly pure and harmonious, and spending two hours in a time before cell phones, social media, and globalization is a welcome relief for weary souls. Edwards started the evening calling those of us in the audience intrepid theatergoers who came out in the midst of Omicron, but it was a gift for us to travel back in time to remember what matters most in life.

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