On one level, this production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town, by the Henderson Rec Players is a mostly faithful staging of the daily events in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire.
The script specifically designates no scenery and minimal props, limited to two tables each with three chairs, along with two ladders, which lends an air of timelessness to the familiar story. What distinguishes this theatrical experience, however, is the ambitious casting choices made by director Dustin Britt.
After delivering the opening monologue, the Stage Manager (an engaging Laura J. Parker sporting a tight-fitting plaid jacket, tie, and brown wingtip shoes with argyle socks), plucks seemingly random audience members to come up on the stage with her. They appear happy to have been selected and pull various items off the clothing rack before occupying a seat in the row of chairs at the back of the stage. It’s a not so subtle reminder that these actors are a part of our community and emphasizes that this story is about a community by community participants.
Keeping the script intact and not changing names or pronouns to match the actor, Britt populates Grover’s Corner with a diversity of performers not just in age, race, gender, and body type, but also hard of hearing actors, multiple people on the autism spectrum, and survivors of brain trauma. And as if that wasn’t enough to challenge this talented director, some of the actors were making their stage debut. Britt makes the most of successfully accommodating and incoporating the wide variety of strengths these actors bring to their respective characters.
This three act play centers on the lives of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, not just in random moments of a somewhat nostalgic view of small town life, but also through life’s big milestones. The two families are next door neighbors with similar household rituals. Mrs. Webb (Tanya Darrow) and Mrs. Gibbs (Arin Dickson) make breakfast in the morning, call their children to get ready for school, and tend to the house while Mr. Webb (Joseph Perdue) and Dr. Gibbs (Jessie Kadolph) head off to work. Milk and the paper are delivered, homework is finished, and the time of day is marked with great lighting by Matt Nowell.
Ris Harp brings a great deal of spirit to the role of Emily, alternating between the giddiness of teen romance with searing emotional moments. Emily’s younger brother, Wally, is charmingly portrayed by rising sixth grader Elizabeth Joyner who is hard of hearing. Emily and Wally communicate via American Sign Language since Harp is also hard of hearing, which adds a layer of endearment to the scene.
Alastair Motylinski channels his fidgety energy to create an air of authentic youthful awkwardness in his portrayal of George Gibbs. His discomfort around Mr. Webb (a successful debut performance by Joseph Perdue) on his wedding morning elicited more than a few knowing chuckles.
Many members of the ensemble moved seamlessly through different roles, signaled by slight changes in wardrobe. Alice Clark Sallins captured the audience’s attention with her enthusiasm as Mrs. Louella Soames and as the musical director at Emily’s and George’s wedding. Jules Tillotson was also engaging as Howie Newsome, struggling mightily – and very believably – with a reluctant horse. Jessi Keeton offers an earnest portrayal of George’s younger sister, Rebecca, and an entertaining comic turn as Dr. Willard. And young Gavin Darrow also added some humorous moments as the brothers Joe and Si Crowell who deliver the town’s newspapers.
This production of Our Town had many great moments although at times the pacing lagged. Yet the third act was particularly powerful with Harp’s Emily grappling with the knowledge that when we are alive we really don’t see each other or appreciate the random events that punctuate our lives until it is too late. But more than that, the entire performance felt like a celebration of community by a community of artists who felt safe and valued.