Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” always moves me. An example: I’m tugged by melancholy early in the first act when the Stage Manager — the semi-omnipotent narrator who in a very non-ordinary way guides the audience through the machinations of a very ordinary town –casually mentions that Doc Gibbs will die in 1930. The hospital will be named for him.
That’s years in the future, at least the future according to 1901, the year in which the first act is set, and it has nothing to do with the story at hand, or even the story to come, really. (Doc Gibbs actually lives a lot longer than many of the other characters in the play.) But the mention of the doctor’s impending death, a tossed-off line related so dispassionately, speaks to how the playwright makes “Our Town” into a rumination on time — and how little of it humans really have. Doc Gibbs was there. Now he isn’t.
In Fresno State’s handsome, vibrant production of the classic play, we get thoroughly wrapped up in this timeless exploration of time, if you will. Director J. Daniel Herring’s well-crafted staging has a burnished, heartfelt feel that never tries to hide the show’s historic underpinnings. (This is “Our Town’s” 75th anniversary.) But it does it in a way that feels fresh, almost modern. If this production were a furniture store, it’d be a Room and Board, not a Thomasville.
To tell the story of the Gibbs and Webb families, who live next to each other in the cheerfully small Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Herring creates a world that feels totally self-contained, with all the music and sound effects produced live by the actors themselves. And he stages the show in the round in the small Woods Theatre.
This intimacy lends itself to the emphatic metatheatricality demanded by Wilder. There are to be no fancy sets. Stage furniture is at a minimum: just a few chairs and tables. Characters mime their use of props. A Greek-style “chorus” of supporting actors floats throughout. The Stage Manager controls all: When he decides it’s time for a scene to end, he steps in and announces it. He even slips in and out of scenes, playing some minor supporting roles himself.
To be sure, Herring’s minimal staging isn’t out of the ordinary; the play demands it. But his choices feel lively. The in-the-round format, and Jeff Hunter’s simple wooden palette, along with Marc Petros’ clean and intense lighting design, adds to the impact. For the audience, there’s no escaping the fact that it is witnessing a play. It’s almost as if the audience members are auxiliary members of the town. Every time I looked at the stage, I could see across to those fellow “residents.”
The play itself might be self-aware, but the acting isn’t meant to be. The interplay between the Gibbs and Webb families, the “real life” splayed out before us by the Stage Manager, is realistic. Time and again on opening night, as characters paired up and engaged in the quiet conversations that create the narrative, I was struck with how beautifully understated and naturalistic the interactions are: the way Dr. Gibbs (Austin Yarbrough) gently chides son George (Mitchell Lam Hau, in a heartfelt turn) for neglecting his chores; the tenderness expressed by Mr. Webb (a standout Ryan D. Torres) toward daughter Emily (a radiant Aubrianne Scott); the easy interplay between Mrs. Webb (Jacque Babb) and Mrs. Gibbs (Kelsey Deroian), just the dynamic you’d expect between two women who have spent so many years living in close proximity.
Among the well-prepared “chorus,” Kristin Lyn Crase gets the chance to stand out with her excitable Mrs. Soames, Daniel Fisher has some nice moments as the choir director, and Michael Anthony Dixon, Jr. excels as the milkman.
I didn’t like two aspects of the show. Jacob Rico is well prepared as the Stage Manager, but I didn’t connect with him in the role. He seemed too dispassionate and removed, never really finding a rhythm and presence that was his own. (It didn’t help that he’s forced to wear a ridiculous looking old-fashioned mustache.) And Elizabeth Payne’s costumes for the ensemble try too hard. There’s a sort of “steam punk” Victorian-era aesthetic going on with the prominent corsets and the rich fabrics of polka dots and pinstripes, and it just seems too garish for this production. The poor Stage Manager is stuck with a gaudy striped jacket that looks awkward and crinkly, particularly the distracting way it drapes in the back.
There are some, I’m sure, who will find “Our Town” — even this vibrant production — a tedious and slow-moving experience. Not much happens, after all: everyday life, love, marriage, death. But for me, this play always has been a sweeping and deeply moving experience. It gets back to that issue of time. Think of the power of a playwright: With just a few words, he or she can traverse time like the best sci-fi traveler. In “Our Town,” time is flattened, and we flit back and forth effortlessly, just as we do with our memories.
In the second act, the Stage Manager ruminates:
You know how it is: you’re twenty-one or twenty-two and you make some decisions; then whisssh! you’re seventy: you’ve been a lawyer for fifty years, and that white-haired lady at your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you.
We might live in a different world than 1938, when Wilder wrote the play. But life still scurries by at the same breakneck speed. Blink, and it’s gone. The same goes for this satisfying Fresno State production. It closes Saturday.