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Theater | Theater Review

'Our Town' Hits Home With Enduring Message

August 03, 2000|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" may be an oft-revived staple of high school and community theater, but in a consummately executed professional staging like the one on view at the outdoor Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, familiarity can still breed astonishment.

Here, the biggest surprise is in how the play's emotional wallop sneaks up on you. Deliberately avoiding dramatic flourishes in her matter-of-fact, unsentimental narration, Ellen Geer's stage manager masterfully eases us into Wilder's portrait of Grover's Corners, a turn-of-the-20th century New England community distinguished by its very lack of distinction.

At first, Grover's Corners seems infinitely remote in both time and values--a quaint relic of a bygone era in which "most everybody climbs into their graves married." Divorce is unheard of, the town's pace of life is positively glacial by comparison with the present, and the most significant multicultural issue its residents seem to face is what color of roses to plant by their picket fences.

We watch their unfolding life stories as though studying lab specimens, with our faces placed against an impassible glass window. Yet that barrier imperceptibly dissolves as the hauntingly lyrical staging from co-directors Geer and Heidi Helen Davis bores through the idiosyncratic to find the eternal human truths that Wilder invokes toward the end of the play.

A large, well-cast ensemble breathes life into the generational saga of two families united by the marriage of their offspring (picture-perfect Jeremiah James and Willow Geer-Alsop).

Particularly noteworthy performances from the supporting cast include David Ellenstein and Susan Angelo as the bride's parents, Melora Marshall and Leonard Kelly-Young as the groom's, and Sheridan Crist as the town curmudgeon. Although Aaron Glickman is too young for the part of the town constable, his convincing delivery compensates handsomely.

Props are minimal, often invoked with mime--the most elaborate being Tom Allard's amiable milkman guiding his imaginary horse and jiggling his unseen delivery bottles in perfect sync with a richly effects-laden soundtrack. With Aaron Bronsal's golden-hued lighting so essential to the tone, nighttime viewing is recommended over a matinee.

Seeming to sprout organically from its Topanga Canyon backdrop, the tableau sports a periodic flow of townsfolk leisurely traversing the hillside behind the stage, opening up the action to embrace a sense of larger community. Subtly but inexorably effective, this fine staging reminds us in no uncertain terms why "Our Town" is enshrined among the definitive classics of Americana.

BE THERE

"Our Town," Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Fridays, 8 p.m. (through Aug. 18); Saturdays, 8 p.m. (through Sept. 30), 4 p.m. (Aug. 26 and Sept. 2), and 3 p.m. (Oct. 7-22). Ends Oct. 31. $13 to $20. (310) 455-3723. Running time: 2 hours,20 minutes.

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