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/


  1. Gigi! You write a wonderful review! You set the stage just enough - giving background and your personal connection to the piece so lightly and thoughtfully that something I thought I had no interest in seeing now sounds very compelling. I want to see it! Your perfect final touch of revealing an aspect of the story that you carry out of the theater to make part of your day and awareness is quite the cake topper. Every, every minute...what a lovely thing.

  2. Oh, thank you, Lisa. I highly recommend it. Like I said, I haven't seen other on-stage productions of Our Town, but this one just felt like the play as it's meant to be seen.