Presented by New Haven Theater Company through September 28 at English Building Market (back room), 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. Remaining performances September 20, 21, 26, 27 & 28 at 8 p.m. www.newhaventheatercompany.com
By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Steve Scarpa. Produced by George Kulp. Production design by Drew Gray. Stage Manager: Mary Tedford. Performed by Megan Chenot (Stage Manager), Peter Chenot (Howie Newsome), Donna E. Glen (Mrs. Carter), Erich Greene (Belligerent Man and Joe Stoddard), George Kulp (Mr. Webb), Josie Kulp (Rebecca Gibbs), Susan Kulp (Mrs. Webb), Jim Lones (Simon Stimson), Spenser Long (Wally Webb), Margaret Mann (Professor Willard, Mrs. Soames), Deena Nicol (Mrs. Gibbs), Mallory Pellegrino (Emily Webb), Christian Shaboo (George Gibbs), J. Kevin Smith (Dr. Gibbs), Sam Taubl (Joe Crowell Jr. and Si Crowell) and Jesse Jo Toth (Sam Craig).
Much has been made of the casting of a young woman, Megan Chenot, to play the Stage Manager in this community-based production of that community-building American theater classic Our Town. That’s because, as you’ll see when you visit Our Town in the back room of English Building Market, the ramifications of having an attractive young women in a modern-style sweater and blue jeans go well beyond that single character. If your narrator is a free-spirited blonde pixie who waves her arms wildly and claps with excitement and chirps good-naturedly through her introductions to the denizens of this small New Hampshire town—rather than the stuffy old gents who customarily take on the role—then there simply isn’t the same need for overplayed comic relief elsewhere. Upbeat puckishness is taken care of. The other characters can be themselves. The scene-stealing old granny who coos about what a grand wedding it is in Act Two (Margaret Mann, who doubles deliciously as the overeducated Professor Willard in Act One) remains unavoidably over-the-top, especially in the sharp spotlight she’s afforded in the dark windowless playing area. But moderately amusing characters, like the red-face choirmaster Simon Stimson (Jim Lones) and two separate doomed teens surnamed Crowell (Sam Taubl, a regular in the summer youth theater Shake It Up Shakespeare shows at Long Wharf Stage II) can evade one-dimensional obligations (i.e. town drunk and chipper youth) and offer more layered performances.
The real casting coup here is that one of the married couples in the play—Mr. Webb the newspaper editor and his wife—are played by a real-life married couple, George and Susan Kulp, whose daughter Josie portrays Rebecca Gibbs, the bratty sister of their future son-in-law George Gibbs. The Webbs’ daughter, ill-fated heroine Emily, is sweetly inhabited by Mallory Pellegrino, who has a dazzling array of warm smiles and twinkling eyes. The way the Kulps beam at Pellegrino is similar to how they beam when sitting on the sidelines and watching their actual offspring Josie in her short scenes.
There’s a love and charm and realness to this production that helps you deal with the usual hazards of Our Town—that’s you’ve likely heard it all before, and there’s not much to look at. This is generally a traditional production. Of course, few have ever truly gone out on a limb when staging this play; it’s simply not one which invites deviation. I recall a Yale School of Drama rendition some years ago where the students were sorely disappointed that they hadn’t found a worthwhile way to modify or modernize the work, and were stuck doing it as written. The truth here is that Our Town is a whole lot more modern than it appears. In the way he announces itself as a play, the way it provides a new dramatic framework for comprehending life and death, and the way it uses cheap comedy to trigger emotional discomfort and despair, Wilder’s as provocative as Pirandello, Sartre or Beckett.
Director Steve Scarpa allows for an acceptable, expected amount of staginess. Some of the full-cast scenes are more choreographed than blocked, and turn into grand tableaux. There’s the accepted bare-stage miming of things like mowing the lawn and setting the table, but also a few props, such as school books and a baseball glove.
I learn something new from Our Town every time I see it. This time was personal, since I haven’t seen a live production of the show since becoming a father 11 years ago, so half a dozen family-life scenes resonated for me in ways they never have. I was watching the sort of grieving I never hope to have to do. The show’s cast with actors my own age, some of them with families themselves. Nearly everyone onstage has worked together before. When Megan Chenot grins beatifically and gushes about the residents of Grover’s Mill, you believe that she’s chattering so gaily about her friends and neighbors, and she is.
That sort of comfort and familiarity is something that community theaters accomplish regularly and regional theaters can only dream of. Our Town is a special play in almost any circumstance, whether it has an all-star cast (hello, Westport Country Playhouse) or is being done at a multi-cultural high school in Compton, California (the subject of the fascinating 2002 documentary OT: Our Town). This one is special not just because the Stage Manager’s a woman. It’s because everyone in it is so human.