‘Our Town’ a stunning inaugural play at new Barrette Center

By David Lampe-Wilson
©2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Casey Predovic, left, and Sutton Crawford during a dress rehearsal of 'Our Town.' Photo copyright 2015 Rob Strong

Casey Predovic, left, and Sutton Crawford during a dress rehearsal of ‘Our Town.’ Click photo to launch gallery. All photos copyrighted 2015 Rob Strong

White River Junction’s Northern Stage inaugurates its new home at the Barrette Center for the Arts with a heartfelt production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town.  Viewed during a recent preview performance, Our Town stuns in its quiet simplicity.

Our Town chronicles the lives of people living in the fictional town of Grovers Corners, N.H.  Wilder strips away the artifice of the theater — scenery and props are eliminated; the play is performed with a couple of tables and chairs, and actors mime eating, cooking, reading a newspaper.

Wilder’s aim was to cut through baggage of life and drill down to its essence — the importance of human relationships. It explores how we waste time by taking life for granted, and in not appreciating every moment we live and the people we love. While the families go through their ordinary days, the audience views these scenes as extraordinary events; the audience is able to see that each trivial task has value while the characters in the play cannot. Our Town is a sobering celebration of lives lived, relationships forged and opportunities lost.

The cast of 'Our Town' at Northern Stage.

The cast of ‘Our Town’ at Northern Stage.

A sterling ensemble plays to the truth of Wilder’s themes: John Hutton’s Stage Manager introduces us to the characters, explains the history of the town and its people, and serves as the audience’s connection to the joys and sorrows that befall its denizens.  He is the anchor of the piece and a joy to watch, an avuncular guide with a hint of mystery.Performances are strong throughout: Sutton Crawford and Casey Predovic pair up perfectly as moonstruck high-school sweethearts, Emily Webb and George Gibbs.

Christian Kohn, Amy Tribbery, Jamie Horton and Amanda Rafuse limn the concerns and love of their parents, who move through life without really comprehending the joy that surrounds them. These seven players serve as the strong nucleus of a talented group of performers.

Director Carol Dunne coaxes renewed life out of this American classic. Over the years, this play has been done to death in nearly every high school and grange hall. Dunne approaches it quietly, respectfully and extracts its high humor and deep feeling. Dunne has fashioned a deft, powerful, multi-layered production about the human experience and the need for community. In many ways, this production can be seen as a gift from this theater to its own community. Its simplicity draws us in; its truth enfolds and enriches us.

From left, Casey Predovic, Amanda Rafuse and Jamie Horton.

From left, Casey Predovic, Amanda Rafuse and Jamie Horton.

The production team for Our Town is well up to the task: Set designer Bill Clarke skeletal space allows the play to breathe and grow. Unlike most productions set in 1938 (the time when the play was first produced), Laurie Churba-Kohn’s costumes are modern (children carry school backpacks, men wear wristwatches) and this visual tweak serves as a bridge between our time and the time of the play; we view the past through a modern lens and make an easy connection.

Lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz defines the space and adroitly shifts moods; lighting is this show’s only scenery and Kotlowitz paints some lovely pictures. Sound design by Ben Montmagny offers up ghostly impressions (a baseball hitting a glove, crickets on a summer night, the snap of fresh beans being readied for canning) that add to the delicate balance struck throughout this spare, dreamlike production.

Late in the play, Emily Webb begs her mother to simply look at her during a joyous moment, and realizes that “…We don’t have time to look at one another.” She then asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?”

The answer, according to Wilder, is sadly, “No.” We are so busy living our lives that we too often are unaware of how to really appreciate it.

Our Town is a rare slice of theatrical magic; it’s a knowing look into the way we live and love, and it is not to be missed.

Our Town continues through Saturday, Oct. 31 at Northern Stage, The Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St., White River Junction. Performances: Tuesday through Sunday. For tickets and information, click here or call 802-291-9009.
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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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