Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Director – Nathan Autrey
Set and Sound Designer – Nathan Autrey
Properties Designer – Susan Spangler
Lighting Designer – Bryan Douglas
Costume and Scenic Designer – Lauren Morgan
Stage Manager – Jennifer Stewart
Delmar H. Dolbier – Stage Manager
Bridie Marie Corbett – Emily Webb
Nick Pinelli – George Gibbs
Kim Titus – Frank Gibbs
Rose Anne Holman – Julia Gibbs
Joel Taylor – Charles Webb
Janette Oswald – Myrtle Webb
Alex Adams – Howie Newsome/Wally Webb
Kyle Lester – Constable Warren/Simon Stimson
Harry Liston – Joe Stoddard
Susan Spangler – Mrs. Soames
Mary Strauss – Rebecca Gibbs
Phil Watson – Sam Craig/Joe Crowell
Reviewed Performance 4/11/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
If one is a member of the newest generation and has grown up with smart phones and computers that display events in nanoseconds, Our Town by Thornton Wilder may seem really slow. For some older generations, however, life in Grover’s Corner reminds of earlier times that moved much slower, with events that were quietly mundane, though more than adequate for quieter lives. But the times Wilder wrote about were slow and mundane for a purpose. He believed all lives are built on the daily monotony of small events.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild has resurrected the folks of Grover’s Corner and you can meet them at the Sanders Theater in Fort Worth Community Arts Center.
Directed by Nathan Autrey, Our Town comes to life in a setting barely recognizable as a play set, but this was Wilder’s wish. Autrey’s designers used Sanders’ black box theater space to create a fictional black box theater for the play-within-a-play. And that is where Grover’s Corner comes alive. Simple white chairs and ladders sat on a black floor within white painted lines that defined the houses of the Webb and Gibbs families. White painted lines on the back wall created a box outline of Grover’s Corner in the distance. Bryan Douglas’s lighting consisted of blue, purple, and blue-green hues and some white spots to accentuate private conversations and allow for some dark scenes.
Lauren Morgan created variances of late 1800’s clothing for the town folk, including simple understated colors for women’s floor length dresses. Men wore shades of tan and brown suits and pants. It was a simple life and Morgan’s costumes reinforced that.
Though property design is attributed to Susan Spangler, I must have missed them. Actors imagined items, including Bessie the horse. Their mimes were very effective, and the plethora of “props” easily recognizable.
Autrey used a much-forgotten art of manual sound effect creation on either side of the audience, including the hoof clopping and neighing of that horse, dishes clanking, and many other effects, often all together. Each was well coordinated to their actions thus providing another level of support and recognition to that earlier, non-technical time. There were a few effects, such as clicking noises, I couldn’t identify and so were distracting, but overall I loved the throwback to old-time sound effect methods.
Our Town is about the Webb and Gibbs families and the lives of their children. It’s a three-part story, separated into Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying. Wilder’s story portrays the inevitable circle of life we all experience. It’s also a play within a play which tells the story of Grover’s Corner with all the action being directed by a Stage Manager.
Delmar H. Dolbier was the Stage Manager. He also played minor roles, but his main function was directing the other actors in their scenes and providing exposition about Grover’s Corner, its families and town folk, and to help with time shifts. At certain points he stops the action in-progress to direct attention to what has happened or what would happen. He was like the script’s stage direction being voiced. Dolbier may have been the perfect choice for this role. He performed it in Reno in 1960, obviously as a much younger man, but his aging and experience since then made him exactly right for the character. With stage presence and authority, dressed in a fine brown suit and commanding the stage with his Hal Holbrook folksy voice, he shared the facts, directed actors, and made it feel like we were in on the play. As he shifted into minor characters, Dolbier smartly changed vocal qualities and cadence as well as facial expressions, but then was able to quickly shift back to the Stage Manager. It was a masterful performance.
Chronicling the lives of two families, the main characters are the kids from each family who grow up, get married and experience joy and heartache from their own circle of life. Bridie Marie Corbett played Emily Webb and Nick Pinelli played George Gibbs. I describe them together because their existence in the story is about being together.
Playing through three different time periods, Pinelli begins as a young school boy who lives across the street from the girl he fancies with the innocence of his age and the traditions of that era. But as high school graduation nears, the questions of life get more serious and Pinelli shifted into the awkwardness a young man who knows he’s in love but can’t express it, so that George stumbles over himself trying to tell Emily how he feels. At the same time, Corbett mirrored George’s innocence and hesitancy during the awkward courtship moments in her characterization of Emily. Those moments were funny and refreshing changes from our current age of adult situations seen too readily on television. Corbett also gave Emily certain coyness as she explored thoughts about George, deftly adding a determined power when Emily explained her expectations for a husband.
Corbett and Pinelli played out the timeless dance of George and Emily’s pre-wedding jitters as well as the giddy new couple, but the two short scenes were almost an impressionistic picture of a wedding. It quickly moved into a cemetery with a mourning family and town folks. Corbett’s Emily transformed into a curious yet confused girl, walking around marveling at the beauty of the cemetery hill and attempting to engage her family and re-experience moments in her life while Pinelli’s George grieved silently over the gravesite. Together these two actors beautifully played a full life of emotional experiences for a complete life of a generation.
Kim Titus and Rose Anne Holman, as George’s parents Frank and Julia Gibbs, struck a balance in creating concerned parents, with a worried mother doting on her boy and a confident father understanding his son’s challenges. Holman and Titus allowed their characters to breathe as they showed a family’s conservative values and high expectations for their children, but they also created sublime, quiet moments together in showing an understanding love between parents who have been married many years. In reality, the Gibbs of the 1800s weren’t so different from most parents today.
Across the street, Emily Webb’s family includes her mother Myrtle, played by Janette Oswald, and her father Charles, played by Joel Taylor. The sensitivities and challenges of the Webb family were similar to the Gibbs family, reflecting a kind of mirror image of actors and characters. Oswald and Taylor both nicely performed the function of adding parental context to their daughter’s life while also showing the daily heartbeat of most American families. In the idle conversation, the little actions around the house, and the discussions about the children, Oswald played Myrtle with a stern seriousness to show she ran the house carefully. Charles, like his neighbor, was lax about Emily’s upbringing and accepted her choices like a doting father. Taylor gave his character the calm assurance of a happy husband and father who could easily accept and deal with any challenge the family encountered.
All the actors in SSC’s Our Town expressed a variety of minimal emotions to go with their actions and conversations, often like conversations you’d see on the street. Their grief in the cemetery, for instance, portrayed that the end of life changes very little over time, but it’s the barest of messages. Wilder wrote he wanted subdued displays of emotion and is reported to have scorned overly emotional productions. He suggested actors should play events as simple and matter-of-fact, and wrote scenes that supported nothing more than a passing moment. This is a challenge for trained actors and their director, as playing characters with no realistic emotions is generally scorned. Performances today tend to demand histrionics, but Wilder wanted to transmit the message that our lives are mostly quiet, simple and uneventful. The cast did well in meeting Wilder’s challenge and allowing his text to tell the story.
Our Town is slow and quiet and different from most productions you’ll see. Television, especially reality shows, and action movies are polar opposite from this play. But this production of a Pulitzer Prize-winning, classic American play was strangely comforting, entertaining and enjoyable. The reasons to see it are plentiful, one being to step back in time to witness evidence of the truth Wilder writes, “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Fort Worth Community Arts Center
1300 Gendy Street
Fort Worth, Texas 76107
Plays through April 26th
Friday - Saturday at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 2:00 pm; and Sunday April 26th at 2:00 pm
Tickets range from $15.50 to $19.00, depending on day and seating area.
Discounts are available for seniors (65+), students, teachers and military.
For information and tickets, visit www.stolenshakespeareguild.org or call their box office at 866-811-4111.