Friday, September 25, 2015

Our Town at Portland Center Stage

Years ago, I lived with a man who was only interested in one subject. That's not a huge thing as far as tragic marriages go, but because all of our time was devoted to this one thing, I spent years feeling culturally and intellectually starved as well as lonely. One time, my mother-in-law gave us a bunch of old movies on video cassette, and one of those was Our Town (1940). That night, I took the tape of the film version of the Thornton Wilder play about the preciousness of everyday life into the bedroom alone and bawled my eyes out.

I've been in love with the play ever since but had never seen it on stage until last Saturday night when I had the good luck to get amazing third-row-center seats for the production at Portland Center Stage. It was performed as it's meant to be performed:

Well, OK, they do have a curtain, but the rest is the same. No scenery. Just chairs and, for the scenes that take place from second-story windows, two ladders.

Theaters always have a big choice to make as far as whether to produce a classic exactly as written or to give it some twist to make it their own. The twist Portland Center Stage employs is equal parts subtle and bold and is very effective. For this story about turn-of-the-last-century small-town life in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, there is quite a diverse cast. The lack of a period set helps put this over so that it's surprisingly  easy to swallow a family in which George Gibbs (Sathya Sridharan) is Indian American and his sister Rebecca (Hailey Kilgore) is African American. One plus to welcoming such diversity into Grover's Corners is that you end up with a cast of very strong actors, but it also plays beautifully into the sense of universality that lies at the heart of Our Town, the idea that this small town is the whole big world.

And, such a strong cast. I thought everyone did great honor to Wilder's characters, but if I had to choose stand-outs, I'd say I thought both the mother characters, Mrs. Gibbs (Gina Daniels) and Mrs. Webb (Tina Chillip), were wonderful, and Sathya Sridharan's gangly, exuberant George was delightful. Sharonlee McLean and Leif Norby added some great supporting cast comedy. And when John D. Haggerdy's Mr. Webb walked Emily (lovely Nikki Massoud) down the aisle on her wedding day, when he turned to look at her in the second before he released her, the love on his face felt utterly real.

While the actors give us subtlety and realness, Rose Riordan's staging gives us beautiful theatricality. One favorite moment is when George and Emily realize they're in love for the first time. Riordan has them walk together, across the back of the stage, then right down the middle, heading right at us in the audience, before breaking away, giddy (the way giddy combines both joy and fear) and running off in opposite directions - a long, silent moment that gives us time to reflect on just how enormous this regular old love thing is.

And then there's the moment when the curtain goes up on act three. I'm not going to give it away, but what I saw was stunning. The staging in this final leg of the show is beautifully haunting and worth the price of admission.

The philosophical climax of Our Town has been described by some modern, jaded crab apples not unlike myself as a tad simplistic and preachy:

Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

But I have to say. Since seeing the play, I find myself stopping here and there in my day, trying to thornton-wilder my way into holding a little harder onto each moment and reminding myself, "every, every minute."


Our Town runs through October 11 on  the Gerding Theater's main stage. More information is here.

Photos of the production courtesy of Patrick Weishampel/

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

a moment in the day: grandfather

You never know what smells are going to find you as you walk through this apartment building. Someone's pizza delivery. Someone's didn't-quite-all-make-it-down-to-the-basement garbage. Often: wet dog. Which I don't mind. Tonight as I walk Nicholas down the three flights of stairs and out into the lovely grand entryway of the apartment, it's a distinct smoke smell. Something thick and oddly sweet, and my brain instantly says, Papoo. My great grandfather on my mother's side. But is that right? What I'm smelling reminds me of pipe tobacco. Did Papoo ever smoke a pipe? Why did this scent make me think of him?

When I really think of Papoo, I remember mints. Or maybe... butterscotch candies. Some sort of candies he loved to eat and always for sure smelled like when I leaned in to hug him when I visited him when I was very young and he was very old. Sad that I don't even remember which candies anymore. Because I so remember remembering what he smelled like - that lovely visceral memory of him - for so long.

Maybe this pipe smell in the entryway is another of my grandfathers. But I think of Coco, and what I remember is the sharp scent of boat gasoline. Or the sweet of blackberry pies baking in their house. And when I think of Pappaw, what I remember is moth balls.

It suddenly makes me terribly sad to be this far along in my life, to be so far away from the scents of grandfathers.

Monday, September 21, 2015

a moment in the day: the floors

We're at the house every moment that we're not... somewhere else. Today I worked nine to five and then we attended a literary event but now, nine o'clock at night, we're at the house again.

The smell of sawdust has replaced the stale cigarette smell, at least in the four rooms where the floor guys have been sanding things down. Working like mad to remove the paint that was splattered and slopped across the lovely, old fir floors when the people who lived here before didn't bother to cover anything while painting the rooms. Working like mad to reduce the outrageous amounts of staining that resulted from those people letting their cats and dogs pee all over the carpet and never bothering to clean it up. Untended animal urine that the floor guys and the carpet-removal guy before them have declared to be the worst case they've ever seen.

I'm mad at those people. For hurting this house. The paint splatters all over the lovely wood molding, the spray of old soy or teriyaki sauce (that's what the cleaning woman said it was) up one living room wall and across the ceiling. The garbage we found half buried in the dirt behind the garage. I know I don't have any right to be mad at them; it was their house and they could do whatever they wanted in it. But now this house is mine, and I feel like you do when you find out someone kicked your little sister.

All the half-assed do-it-yourself repair jobs they did on the plumbing. Paint smeared across window glass. The door they took out and walled up but never bothered to refinish. All the filth they were living in. All the neglect. How neglect can feel like disrespect.

Stephen crouches with a spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide, squirting the spots along the floor where the long-ignored animal urine stained the wood the worst. There's only one spray bottle and it's not my turn, so I'm walking around, taking some pictures and looking at the difference this treatment has made already.

I stoop and touch the floor. Touching is something I've been avoiding in this house, at least when I'm not working to scrape paint spatters off the wood columns or help unscrew ugly bathroom fixtures from the walls. It's like there's a layer of those people lingering like old smoke residue all along every surface. But now, we've yanked out the old green carpet and the floor guys have sanded the top layer off the wood underneath, exposing a surface those people never touched. I run my hand along the soft, powdery surface. Something new. Something clean.

Monday, September 14, 2015

a moment in the day: paint chips

Stephen and I stand in the room that will someday be our bedroom: paint-splattered wood floor, army helicopter stickers on the wall, the exposed drywall where the ugly prefab fireplace was demolitioned over the weekend. We have a little stack of paint chips and Stephen's holding one to the wall, up against the wood molding around the door, and we're talking about color.

I've felt so emotional throughout this house process, grumpy and sleep deprived and periodically wanting to burst into tears because, say, Stephen announces that we'll have to keep our section of the sidewalk clear and then nudges a weed to its death with his shoe to demonstrate. I just know the house is going to smell like old cigarettes forever, and the thought that I'll never hear the streetcar go by the house and I'll never hear the Amtrak train whistles at night fills me with grief.

The color on the paint chip is green, a late-summer green, like hot sun through waning leaves. I picked the paint chips out, and Stephen likes my choices, and that makes me incredibly proud. The choices weren't arbitrary. We've been talking color for a long time. But just the fact that my opinionated artist husband asked me to pick out the paint chips with my own eyes and is standing here, now, nodding and smiling and saying, "Yes, I think that's going to look really nice," fills me with whatever is the opposite of that grief thing I was just talking about.

He uses his hand to cover the green squares above and below the shade we're considering, and I stand back like it's a portrait in an art gallery. I say I think it's great and he says he thinks this might be it. We turn the card over to see what the name of the color is so we can make a note of it. It says, Footy Pajamas.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

a moment in the day: porch toast

Stephen and I sit side by side on the porch steps. Early-dusk blue sky, a cartwheel of crows overhead. We closed on our house today, this house behind us, and it feels real like only something this big feels real, which is to say not real. Whose house is this, it's not our house, it's not a house at all, it's the facade of a house sitting on the old MGM motion picture back lot, it's a painted stage flat on the opera stage at the Keller auditorium. We each have a glass of Veuve Clicquot.

We’ve been wandering around the empty rooms that are full of the stale smell of the fifteen thousand cigarettes smoked by the people who lived here before, pulling up old carpet to see the paint-splattered wood floors underneath. Taking “before” pictures of the cracked kitchen counters, the lovely but scarred and paint-splattered wood moldings and columns in the dining room, taking stock of the work before us.

Cats make lazy lopes through the street. A perturbed squirrel squawks at us from the walnut tree. We clink glasses.

Stephen says, "This is ours."

I take that in for a moment.

He sips his champagne and turns to gaze at our new house. “I don’t usually own things this junky.”