Our Town – Theatre Review (PCS)

Welcome to Grover’s Corners, a small town in New Hampshire that doesn’t have much special to offer.  Looking back into the early 20th Century, the Stage Manager guides the audience through the everyday workings, the life and the death of small town America with the words “this is the way we were.”

Grover’s Corners is the fictional setting for Pacific Christian School’s Acting 11/12 class production of Our Town, a 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in three acts by American dramatist Thornton Wilder.  The play was performed January 13-16, 2011 at Berwick Royal Oak, a luxury retirement community situated in the suburbs of Victoria, BC.  Berwick has a state-of-the-art theatre that was a perfect fit for the high school’s production and provided a ready audience for all performances.

The Berwick Theatre and cast photos

Our Town is a play about life.  At once a comedy and a serious drama, the play deals with the daily lives of teenagers growing up between 1901 and 1913 and the darker elements of life like death and not noticing those around you.  The play was written in the 1930s and reflects the darker times of the Depression represented by the sparsely decorated stage that requires the actors to mime many of their props.  PCS brings a modern touch to the production with superb sound effects by Tim Archer and dramatic lighting cues while still staying true to the original script’s minimalist stage dressings.

The acting by this group of teenagers was superb.  As someone who was once heavily involved in high school productions, seeing the high quality of acting by the Acting 11/12 class was encouraging and inspiring.  The actors knew their lines well and presented them almost flawlessly, but their physical acting and miming of difficult and significant parts was at the same time eye-catching yet not overwhelming.  Even the character actors – industry speak for minor or secondary characters – were performed with passion and finesse.  There were many notable secondary roles including the starry-eyed young Gibbs sister, the drunk and brooding church organist, and perhaps the best accent of the play performed by Rachel Sovka in her small role of undertaker when she perfectly conveys the flat eastern accent of a hard-working New Hampshire citizen.

The play Our Town is interesting to say the least.  Not only does it have many complex themes and difficult acting scenes, it also features a narrator who breaks the ‘fourth wall’ at length and a time that spans 12 years with many different emotional situations.  While the play revolves around Emily Webb and George Gibbs (and we’ll get to them shortly), the most prominent character is the Stage Manager.

Thornton Wilder's minimalist stage dressing

Playing the part of narrator, prop manager, minister, soda-shoppe owner, and apparent director of the town (there are numerous scenes where he invites other actors to leave the stage or address the audience), Brodie Nicholls never left the stage unless changing costume and had by far the most lines of the cast.  His role, although a flat character, does require a complete grasp of his lines, and Nicholls played the part with good enthusiasm and presence.  Perhaps his most poignant lines come at the end when he tells the recently deceased Emily that only “the saints and poets, maybe they” realize life while they are living it.

Emily Webb and George Gibbs are two teenagers interested in each other yet unaware of their mutual interest.  Played by Genevieve Penny and Erick Jantzen, both seniors in their final school production, the two characters weave an intricate storyline from George’s watching Emily’s window at night through a choppy high school romance to their eventual wedding when both are having second thoughts.  The play’s emotional climax comes when Penny’s character tragically dies in childbirth and her spirit or ghost must come to terms with leaving her family and George behind in the land of life.  She comes to realize that while living no one is aware of the importance and complexity of life.  As the lights dim to nothing at the end of the play, Jantzen’s character falls to his knees in front of his young wife’s grave as she wonders aloud if the living will ever understand the preciousness of life.

Both Penny and Jantzen are phenomenal in their roles.

George Gibbs (Erick Jantzen) and Emily Webb (Genevieve Penny)

Their characters are highly dynamic and run the gamut of emotions from giddy love to painful sorrow.  As long-time friends, both actors have a certain familiarity with each other visible on stage.  Notable scenes include George staring out his window (portrayed by a ladder on the stage) at Emily asking for hints for his math homework and later having his reverie interrupted by his little sister, their wedding scene where both actors question the institution of marriage as Wilder intended, and Emily’s funeral scene where she converses with her dead mother-in-law and young Jantzen gives a heart wrenching performance of loss.

The play’s themes expand when the other main characters are introduced.  Both the Webb and Gibbs parents help demonstrate the theme of love and of companionship, yet they also show the notions of the time when men focussed on manly things and the women laboured without much thanks in the house.  The two couples help guide George through his superstitions surrounding marriage and Emily’s concerns that she is not pretty enough to be noticed.  The parents also demonstrate loss and self-sacrifice, especially when Mrs. Gibbs (Charlotte Elgersma) leaves the money she wanted to use for a trip to Paris to her newlywed son and his family.

The play is divided into three acts.  The first act focuses on everyday life in Grover’s Corners from the milk man to the twins born in ‘Polish Town.’  The life is pleasant and uneventful and leads the viewer to expect a happy ending.  Many of the scenes are comedic and have lines that left the sold-out audience in stitches, but the importance of this 45-minute act is to prepare the audience for the next two acts.  During the intermission the audience was happily talking amongst themselves with no notion of the darker aspects of “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Eternity,” the final two acts respectively.  The last act is one of questioning life’s true meaning and reflecting on what we miss during our busy days.  The fact that this play was performed in a retirement community was not lost on this reviewer, although it was likely coincidental.

In all, this play was very well done.  Much credit must go to Mrs. Stewart, the Acting 11/12 teacher who worked long hours organizing and directing the cast to their high calibre performance.  The only suggestion I would have had for the cast and crew is to have microphones for main characters and to have a longer run of performance dates.  The microphones were not needed in this performance because of the size of the venue and adding technology can be risky, but the lines were occasionally drowned out by the sound effects and audience laughter, and the older members of the audience may have had difficulty hearing all the subtle lines in one or two scenes.  Longer production runs are difficult to do with today’s over-worked high school students and theatre rental costs, but having even two or three more performances provides much-needed experience for the young actors and provides a greater viewership for this quality school production.

This performance deserves a 4/5, not just for the production and content, but for the amazing acting of the entire cast, the way Mrs. Stewart stayed true to the original stage directions, and the superb job of conveying the important message of this play while not becoming bogged down in the darker aspects or ruining the significance of the final scene.  High school productions are rarely as moving as this performance was.  Congratulations to all, I hope your experience in the play was as fulfilling as mine was watching it and I hope to see you back on stage in your future life.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Brodie Nicholls – Stage Manager
Stephen Menold – Dr. Gibbs
Princess Love – Joe Crowell
Rosie Webster – Howie Newsome
Charlotte Elgersma – Mrs. Gibbs
Bethany Heemskerk – Mrs. Webb
Erick Jantzen – George Gibbs
Desi Barkman – Rebecca Gibbs
Nathan Vanschaik – Wally Webb
Genevieve Penny – Emily Webb
Jenny Fitterer – Professor Willard
Adam Fitterer – Mr. Webb
Marina Colyn – Woman in the balcony/Baseball player
Hannah Macdonald – Man in Auditorium/Baseball player
Erica Chapman – Lady in the box
Harrison Kwantes – Simon Stimson
Emily Thiessen – Mrs. Soames
Ryan Michaud – Constable Warren
Kristen Nikolejsin – Sid Crowell
Megan Nelson – Baseball Player
Taylor Archer – Sam Craig
Rachel Sovka – Joe Stoddard

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