Last week, I had the opportunity to see a lovely new production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, produced by Tongue in Cheek Productions. Our Town is one of those shows that has become so ubiquitous that (in the abstract) you wonder “why would anyone bother to do this show? Hasn’t it been done to death? What new things could anyone have to say about it?” It’s one of those shows that, as a friend of mine says – “every high school in America does it. Every four years they trot it out because it has a huge cast and no props, no set requirements and it’s safe for audiences of all ages”…And it’s what I thought until I saw this production and was reminded that beautiful writing and simple straightforward storytelling coupled with excellent acting and directing is always worthwhile. There’s always something new to say…
The first thing that struck me as I sat down in the audience, was the realization that, despite the play’s popularity, I had never actually seen a live performance of it before. Sure, I had read it countless times. And discussed the play itself but I had never seen it performed live. And then the show started and I was reminded, yet again, of the power of live theater. In the hands of a talented ensemble, you don’t need lots of flash and you don’t need millions of dollars to tell a compelling tale and take the audience with you on musings about the big — the meaning of life and death — and the small — two teenagers sharing an ice cream soda at the local general store — and how closely the two (big and small) are related.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Our Town is a simple story about the happenings of a small town in New Hamshire. People go about living their lives and the play tells you about them. Nothing happens. But the power of the play is that moment when you realize that in examining a life where “nothing happens” you see that nothing is everything. Our Town is the embodiment of that idea, which I first heard so eloquently stated in the tv show Angel, (yup, I went there, and btw, god bless Joss Whedon) that “if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today.” Our Town takes that idea and runs with it. What is a life? What does it mean? How do we make our lives matter? How do we appreciate it while we have it? And, what happens to us after we’re gone? It’s a quietly moving story and in the hands of Jake Lipman and the Tongue in Cheek ensemble, one that is beautifully told.
Across the board, the acting was superb, but I’d like to call particular attention to Nina Leese, Shelley Little, and Ms. Lipman herself. Nina Leese brought both gravitas and ease to the role of Mrs. Gibbs, fueling the heart of this bittersweet tale while also completely nailing the very ordinariness of life. Shelly Little portrayed Emily with both naivete and knowledge, making her a young woman coming into her own while still trying to hold onto the innocence of childhood. And, Jake Lipman, as the guiding character of The Stage Manager, anchored the show at the same time she propelled it by carrying it on her shoulders. As a director/producer myself, I know exactly what it takes to put together a production of this nature. That Ms. Lipman was able to do it while also crafting such a compelling performance, is an examble of her extraordinary skill. From a directing standpoint, she did what I consider to be the most difficult and important thing as a director — direct in such a way that it seems like you weren’t there at all. Her staging was understated but moving — straightforward while also being beautiful. And, by helping the actors to creat so many different environments with simple chairs and tables she deftly handled all the challenges the play presented. The creation of a scene in a cemetery was particularly poignant in its staging.
Finally, I wanted to mention something I did not expect from Our Town — I expected to be moved, and brought the requisite tissues — but I did not expect to laugh as much as I did. It turns out, Our Town is a pretty funny show. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not some “roll-on-the-floor-laughing-for-2-hours-straight” funny but it is like life — at the moments you least expect it, someone says something in a particular way and you find yourself laughing out loud and suddenly life doesn’t feel so cold and lonely anymore.
Our Town runs for one more week at Shetler Studios on 54th Street in Manhattan. For tickets and more details go here. For more info about Tongue in Cheek and read some interviews with cast members of Our Town, check out their website and blog. And, whether you’ve seen Our Town before, or not, don’t miss your chance to see this beautifully-staged, superbly-acted, and all-around terrific production of this American classic.