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THEATER REVIEW 'OUR TOWN' : Nostalgia Dose : Santa Paula is the perfect locale to see the Thornton Wilder play. Step outside and it seems like 1913 Grover's Corners.

February 21, 1991|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Well, someone's upped and trotted "Our Town" out again; this time, it's the good people of the Santa Paula Theater Center.

The play's such a longtime favorite with the young folks in high school and college drama classes that it's good to see an adult cast take us back to the turn of the century for the cleanest dose of nostalgia since Walt Disney envisioned Main Street, U.S.A.

Things are still pretty much the same in Grover's Corners, N. H., as they were back in '38, when Thornton Wilder's play made its debut on Broadway. The show was nostalgic even then, taking place between 1901 and '13, and garnering a Pulitzer Prize.

You remember. Dr. Gibbs is the local sawbones and his daughter, Emily, is the town beauty. Couple of houses away, George Gibbs, the doctor's son, is thinking about college and a career in farming.

Howie Newsome delivers milk to each house every morning, even on the coldest days, from a cart drawn by what might be the world's oldest horse. The church organist is a little moody, but nobody pays him any mind.

By the end of three acts, we know quite a bit about Grover's Corners and its people--except for those on the other side of the tracks; the folks in Polish Town keep pretty much to themselves, as maybe befits a minority.

Somebody important dies between the second and third acts, while the audience is out on the porch in front of the theater, smoking and chatting, or whatever people do between acts. The third act's the funeral, which gives playwright Wilder a chance for some down-home philosophizin' and the audience a chance to shed a tear or two.

One change this time around: The stage manager, who sets the wheels in motion and helps us understand what's going on, is a woman. At one point, she doubles as a preacher; imagine that! The Santa Paulans hedge their bets, though; as played by Dorothy Scott, she's not the frilly type at all, but dresses in tailored pants and a sensible sweater.

A couple of things make "Our Town" an attractive property. One is the opportunity to look back to earlier years, with practically no mention of the drearier aspects of living in those days before electricity, automobiles and--for instance--much of today's sanitation, health care and labor laws.

Theater companies like the show, in part, because it employs a large cast with relatively little real acting involved. Everybody gets to dress up in old clothes, but the costumes aren't so elaborate as to be overly costly. Scenery is limited to a few chairs, a table or two, and some risers.

As seen at Sunday's matinee performance, the cast was fine, except for some difficulty (most by characters in minor roles) remembering lines.

Tom Hall and the splendidly named Lowell V. Noel portray the Webb and Gibbs patriarchs, with Pat Gebhard and Jill Macy as their respective wives. William F. McDonald is dashing and authoritative as young George Gibbs. As Emily Webb, Theresa Reynolds gets the meatiest part, which she has polished to perfection.

Director Dan Kern keeps order among the cast of 22, only one of whom tripped on the scenery Sunday. Marianne Thallaug's lighting design deserves special commendation. Frances Erwin's costumes and Tom Hall's sets are fine.

Come to think of it, the old and relatively unspoiled Santa Paula is a perfect place to see "Our Town." Step outside the theater, and what you see is almost a continuation of 1913 Grover's Corners.

The theater building dates back to about the time the play ends, 1913, and one of the advertisers in the program is a farm and home supply store that was founded in 1886. The furniture might have been borrowed from local residents. In fact, some of the members of last Sunday's audience could have stepped off of--or onto--the stage.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Our Town" continues Thursdays through Sundays through April 7 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 South 7th St. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.. Admission is $11 Thursdays and Sundays, $12.50 Fridays and Saturdays, with group rates and season passes available. For reservations or information, call 525-4645.

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