Saturday, April 26, 2014


By Ruth Ross

Molière said that all the theater he needed was "a platform and a passion or two," an adage the folks at George Street Playhouse, in their inaugural production in collaboration with Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Performing Arts, have taken to heart in their stunning, moving production of Thornton Wilder's ground-breaking 1938 play, Our Town.

Indeed, Director David Esbjornson (Chair of the School's Department of Theater) has respected the conventions of Wilder's play: no scenery, no props, no curtain—just a combination of 24 professional and student actors (above) on the George Street Playhouse's very expansive, very bare stage, pantomiming what passes for life in the hamlet of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire (founded 1670; population, 2,642).

But, oh, the passion that pulses from that bare stage! Its immediacy draws us inexorably into a tale of ordinary people leading ordinary lives—a feeling enhanced by Esbjornson's decision to extend the action into the auditorium by having the actors enter and exit through the aisles and even pop up to ask questions or comment. As the audience follows the Gibbs and Webb families through important life cycle events—birth, adolescence, courtship, marriage and, finally, death—over a 13 year period in a New England village at the turn of the last century, the play becomes a testament to life’s simple pleasures, quiet joys and sorrows.

As the Stage Manager, veteran actor Boyd Gaines (left) is an ever-present avuncular, sometimes droll, often serious guide, setting the scene so well that we can see the town layout in our mind's eye, giving us "inside" information about characters major and minor, and even acting as the minister in the wedding scene. Kati Brazda as Mrs. Gibbs and Kathleen McNenny as Mrs. Webb, convincingly bustle about their kitchens, mime breakfast preparation, admonish their procrastinating children and steal a few poignant moments while stringing beans to share their dreams of travel and their anxiety about their spouses and children. Those spouses, editor Webb (played by Lee Sellars) and Doc Gibbs (played by Sean Cullen), are equally winning, the former loving toward his teenage daughter Emily on the brink of womanhood and marriage; the latter gruffly affectionate as he scolds his baseball-loving son George for his laxity in cutting wood for his mother, only to raise the boy's allowance as he realizes he may need more money for "things" he'd like to do (such as buying a girl a strawberry ice cream soda)! In fact, it is editor Webb who gives voice to one of the play’s themes: He comments early on that, while there may not be much culture in the hamlet, folks take pleasure in small joys, such as sunrises over the mountain, the birds and the change of seasons.

But it is the Mason Gross alumni (right) portraying the two teenagers at the center of the plot who really win us over. Pico Alexander (2013) is an adorably goofy George Gibbs, filled with a love of baseball yet achingly earnest about wanting to be a farmer. As his love interest (and later wife) Emily Webb, Aaron Ballard (2010) conveys very well the smugness of a girl who knows she is smart yet masks an interest in the opposite sex, but her doubts about her looks don't quite ring true. I wish she had shown the character's vulnerability a bit more convincingly. She's much better in the scene preceding her wedding and in her post-mortem return to earth for her twelfth birthday. Here, Ballard makes Emily's yearning manifest, as she utters the play's central idea that we appreciate too late the world around us.

Among the other 17 actors, Dalton Roger Gray is a cheerful Howie Newsome, commenting on the action as he delivers milk to the Webb and Gibbs' households and leads his imaginary horse through the audience. Shazi Raja as George's little sister Rebecca, and Matthew Kuenne as Emily's brother Wally are adorable. Wally Dunn's Professor Willard is appropriately officious as he recites the geological and anthropological facts about Grover's Corners; and Matthew Lawler is heartbreaking as the frustrated choir director Simon Stimson, driven to drink over his unfulfilled musical destiny in a very small town. Mary And McLain's very loud comments as town busybody Mrs. Soames bring down the house.

That the stage is bare doesn't diminish Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design. He has hung about 100 light bulbs from the ceiling of the black box playhouse (top photo); when lit, they function as stars and bring the natural world into the action. Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes set the time and place of the action as does Ted Crimy's unobtrusive yet impressive sound design. I would note here that there the actors have not been provided with microphones; the empty stage makes their delivery resonate so they can be easily heard in the upper reaches of the auditorium. However, in the penultimate scene where Emily returns to the past, the background sounds of Mrs. Webb calling to her children were a bit muddled and hard to understand. The lighting by Scott Zielinski conveys the passage of time and is especially effective in the funeral scene.

To many theatergoers (and students), Our Town, with its simple pleasures, unsophisticated language, and focus on birth, marriage and death, might seem a bit corny and outdated. In a complex, technological world where it’s all too easy to be chained to our smartphones and computers, Thornton Wilder reminds us to take time to look at one another, to notice “clocks ticking, sunflowers, food and coffee, and new-ironed dresses and hot baths...and sleeping and waking up,” lest we learn too late, as Emily says, “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Coming just as the theater concludes its 40th anniversary season, this collaboration between George Street Playhouse and the Mason Gross School of the Arts, is a welcome addition to the local professional theater scene. We look forward to further productions by this new dramatic entity.

Our Town will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through May 25. Call the box office at 732.246.7717 or visit online at for information and to purchase tickets. And bring the kids; this play is appropriate for teens 14 and up.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson.