A few weeks back, actor James O’Neil and director Jenny Sullivan were looking for a quiet, emotionally resonant place to work on the final act of Our Town. So they headed to the Santa Barbara Cemetery.
“All my family is there,” said O’Neil, his matter-of-fact tone tinged with just a touch of sadness. “My mom, my dad, my grandfather, my grandmother. My great-grandfather is in the Civil War section. He came to California in the late 1800s.”
His presence there — and its reminder that generations pass, but life goes on — hauntingly echoes through Thornton Wilder’s 1938 masterpiece. “In Act Three,” O’Neil noted, “Wilder talks about the ‘old stones’ in the Grover’s Corners cemetery. He even says, ‘Over there is the Civil War section.’”
Saturday night, O’Neil will again find himself in a cemetery — this time on the stage of Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre. He will play the Stage Manager in a new production of the classic drama, which culminates in the premature death and burial of one of the central characters.
In staging that achingly moving scene, he and Sullivan will draw from the emotions they experienced at the actual graveyard. “It’s so beautiful up there,” said Sullivan. “There’s a feeling of peace and serenity that I hope the audience experiences at the end of the play.”
Our Town is hardly an unknown quality: John Blondell staged a memorable production at the Lobero Theatre in 2010. But it’s the sort of classic that’s worth revisiting regularly. It’s about the arc of life, and it inevitably hits us slightly differently once we’ve moved forward a few years.
Focusing on two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs, Wilder paints a delicate portrait of small-town life in the first half of the 20th century. While showing us some of key moments of life, including birth, courtship, marriage, and death, his main focus is on the simple rituals that make up our everyday existence. He feels a sense of wonder in the mundane and suggests we notice it, too, before it all slips away.
“It’s kind of a perfect play,” said Sullivan. “It’s thought of as sentimental, but that’s a misconception. A lot of it is ‘homey.’ There are a lot of homilies and homespun ideas, presented in a very comfortable way. But it sneaks up on you. I see it as a meditation on what we should be paying attention to.”
Our Town is, of course, about every town; if it weren’t, it wouldn’t still be one of the most-produced American plays. A successful production subtly makes the connection between Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and the community where it’s being produced.
Sullivan came up with a way to do this early in rehearsals. When O’Neil, whose avuncular character narrates the action, made a reference to Main Street, it occurred to her that the Rubicon is, literally, on Main Street in Ventura. So she instructed O’Neil to gesture toward the actual street as he spoke the line.
The rest flowed from there. When the Stage Manager mentions the hills or the high school or the railroad tracks, O’Neil will point toward Ventura’s versions, all of which are within a mile or so of the theater.
“Our Town became a centerpiece of the idea of reconnecting with the community,” said O’Neil, who is also Rubicon’s artistic director. “The recession hit us hard and for a long time. We were forced to make a lot of cutbacks. What that meant in practical terms was that we became insulated from the audience we were trying to reach, beyond our subscribers. Reaching out to individual ticket buyers is costly, and we had to cut back.
“Then we got a grant from the Irvine Foundation to help us through the mire. As things got a little better, we came to realize that what we really had been missing was the connection to our community. So we came up with the idea ‘our theater, our town.’”
The community connection will be more than symbolic: While professional actors will play all the principals, the production will feature many Ventura-area residents in smaller roles.
What’s more, actors who have given numerous performances at the Rubicon, including Lauren Patten, Joseph Fuqua, and Robin Gammell, will play many of the main roles. O’Neil hopes their familiar faces will evoke a feeling of family.
The staging will be similar to the company’s acclaimed production of Fiddler on the Roof, which essentially turned the theater into the town of Anatevka. This time, it will become Grover’s Corners.
“There are risers for the audience on the stage,” O’Neil said. “The play takes place all around you. It’s your town, and you’re there, in the town.”
“The actors are going to be very close to the audience,” added Sullivan. “I want this to be a communal experience. Audience members will see other audience members. There will be no place to hide. We’re all on the journey together.”
Our Town previews March 7 and 8; opens at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 9; and shows through March 31 at the Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St., Ventura). For more info, call (805) 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org.