— Milo Engleman & Faro Koza-Rogers. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Our Town is one of those plays that anyone over a certain age interested in theatre probably knows—or thinks they know. You might have read Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic in high school (especially if you grew up in the US as I did) or maybe seen it in a community theatre production. It’s gentle, nostalgic, elegiac, old-fashioned, non-threatening. Why would anyone care, now and here, about small-town life in New Hampshire at the turn of the century?
Well, Bob Frazer cares, and his intimate osimous theatre production in a church hall on Victoria Street brings this smart, funny, moving play vividly to life. His production is simple, imaginative and beautifully performed; theatre at its most alive.
Wilder was a humanist and a modernist. The play is self-consciously metatheatrical, narrated by a character called Stage Manager, played by Frazer himself, who chats with the audience, provides information about the people and the place—Grover’s Corners, NH, population 2,642—and tells actors to stop a scene so another can begin. He also sometimes tells us that a certain character will die in a few years, setting up the play’s life-and-death theme.
The first act, a day in the life of the town in 1901, introduces us to the main characters: Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Craig Erickson and Quelemia Stacey Sparrow) and their son George (Chris Cope), and Mr. and Mrs. Webb (John Shaw and Dawn Petten) and their daughter Emily (Lauren Jackson). Varya Rubin, on piano and violin, provides musical accompaniment. All the performers double and triple, fleshing out the town with a range of sharply delineated people (and chickens). Frazer is hilarious as the Gibbs’ precocious daughter, Erickson as a fussy pedantic professor, Petten as a drunken choirmaster, Shaw as an elderly female gossip.
Act two, three years later, revolves around the marriage of Emily and George, the flashback to their courtship played with such sweetness by Jackson and Cope. Nine years pass before the poignant third act, set in the town cemetery. Some of the characters we’ve met have died, and the dead speak to each other as they observe the living. What they see, painfully, is life in its exquisite brevity: “live people don’t understand, do they—all that was going on, and we never knew it.”
Life is so precious and it goes so fast. Wow, deep eh? Well yeah, it kind of is. The possibilities for heavy-handedness and/or sentimentality in presenting this material are many. But the osimous company—directing the show themselves, as an ensemble—manage to avoid all the pitfalls with a very light touch. They even convey a feminist theme that might not have been evident in earlier productions: the daily domestic drudgery faced by the women.
There’s nary a false note in the acting, and the staging is consistently dynamic and imaginative. Sound effects are all done by the actors themselves, vocally or with simple props on a couple of props tables. The set (“Here’s some scenery for those who think they need scenery,” says the Stage Manager) consists of two tables, some chairs and a couple of ladders. The audience sits in a ragged circle on old chairs and couches, and the action weaves itself in and among us. All the lights are practical. All the furniture was donated and will go, when the show ends, back to the HomeStart Foundation, which will use it to help set up homes in Vancouver for the underprivileged.
Our Town is real feel-good theatre. Treat yourself.