Thoughtful and spare, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s stylized production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” offers theatergoers a unique viewing experience at the Spencer Theatre. Artistic director Eric Rosen admirably decided that a roll of the artistic dice was a good way to begin the Rep’s 50th anniversary season.
For my money, “Our Town” is one of a handful of plays that is perfect as written. That means the primary task of any director and cast who take it on is to not screw it up. That wasn’t likely to be the case at the Rep, because New York-based director David Cromer has essentially made a career of staging and restaging this show. At times, Cromer and his actors — a mix of out-of-towners and locals — successfully tap into the material’s transcendent quality. And the play’s inherent poignancy will not be denied.
Cromer’s famed 2009 production of this play in New York offered viewers an unusually intimate viewing experience in the 199-seat Barrow Street Theatre, where playgoers were sometimes close enough to the actors to touch them. The idea was to eliminate the distance between actor and viewer, and to strip away theatrical artifice by putting the performers in contemporary street clothes and using lighting effects so subtle as to be virtually imperceptible.
Cromer and scenic designer Stephen Dobay attempt to recreate that environment for at least some of the viewers in the Spencer Theatre. They’ve built a runway stage over the orchestra with seating sections to the left and right of the principal playing area. A front row on either side is separated from the rest of the seats by an aisle, which the actors often use. (The upper seating area is left as is.)
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The performances are impressive, as are many of the creative staging decisions. But your enjoyment of the production depends almost entirely on your seat location. If the goal was to limit the distance between audience and actors, I’m afraid this production is not entirely successful. Some viewers may find themselves frustrated.
From my seat in the right seating section, the blocking often obscured important moments. In a key scene between George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the young newlyweds-to-be, I saw only the back of George’s head and had to crane my neck a bit to see Emily. George’s face was also obscured by a piece of furniture in a scene between George and his dad, Doc Gibbs. I could cite other examples, but you get the idea. I imagine I would have had a different impression of the show from a different vantage point.
The bottom line is that putting this show in the Spencer, despite the creative design touches, is an awkward fit. The good news is that a strong cast does all it can to overcome the inherent staging problems, delivering polished performances virtually across the board.
The anchor is, of course, the Stage Manager, played with relaxed authority by Jeff Still. Still avoids the choices we’ve seen from other actors, who tend to give specific lines special gravitas to enhance their dramatic meaning. Still adopts a conversational approach which, in effect, lets Wilder’s words do the work. Wilder’s descriptions of the town, of the sky, of the graveyard, of the cycle of life and death, are inherently poetic and don’t need much help.
Linsey Page Morton is affecting as Emily, a young woman who can’t quite put her feelings into words, and Derrick Trumbly gives us a nice performance as the somewhat dim-witted George. As George’s parents, we get effective work from Craig Benton and Stephanie Rae Roberts. The same is true for Charles Fugate and Kati Brazda as Emily’s parents. Brazda is particularly memorable as a mother beset with worry as her daughter is about to march down the wedding aisle.
Good supporting work is contributed by Patrick Du Laney as the boozy choirmaster, Peggy Friesen as the wedding-loving Mrs. Soames, Gary Neal Johnson as undertaker Joe Stoddard and Richard Brown as Farmer McCarty. Logan black delivers an amusingly dry, low-key performance as Professor Willard and Todd Carlton Lanker makes an agreeable impression as milkman Howie Newsome.
Wilder’s 1938 play was a reaction to — and rejection of — conventional “realism” in the theater. He specified that hand props be imaginary and that scenery be minimal. This production honors Wilder’s intentions and breaks the play down to its bare essentials — although we do at times see realistic props in the actors’ hands.
But what matters in any production of this play is the clarity of Wilder’s themes — that something eternal resides in each of us, that our planet is a grain of sand in a vast universe, that nothing could be more valuable to our lives than the most unimportant details of an unexceptional day.
All of that comes cross in the Rep production, even if some viewers have to contend with a few regrettable obstacles.