Santa Barbara Theatre has a winning formula with this production of Our Town at the Lobero. The show’s three main elements — the script, the cast, and the direction — are in balance, and the result is an absorbing experience that leaves a potent after-impression. As with Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, Thornton Wilder’s play has never been the safe-as-milk propaganda for family values it is often taken to be. Families may be the focus, but the real subject of Our Town is freedom: something that’s at once ubiquitous and nearly unbearable, a state that living people turn away from and only the dead can truly grasp.
Any production of Our Town relies heavily on the staging, and the lights and costumes by Ted Dolas and Miller James are subtle and effective. The Gibbs and their next-door neighbors the Webbs begin the evening as friends and end it as in-laws when their two eldest, George Gibbs (Mitchell Thomas) and Emily Webb (Sarah Thomas) get married. Laurel Lyle as Mrs. Webb and E. Bonnie Lewis as Mrs. Gibbs form the base of this family pyramid. Their simple, repetitive movements are carefully choreographed, and gradually add up to a powerful sense of place and purpose.
Stan Hoffman is terrific as Dr. Gibbs. His scalding dressing down of son George is one of the evening’s highlights. Mitchell Thomas portrays boyish nonchalance and adolescent earnestness with consummate skill. When George and Emily mount the twin ladders that signify the heights of their respective bedrooms and of their newborn love, the lyrical admiration of the moon that infects the whole town crystallizes into an aching poignancy.
Even in such a consistently fine production, certain performances stand out. As the stage manager, Irwin Appel colors the script’s adamant neutrality with a wistful tenderness that softens Wilder’s implicit desperation. As Emily Webb, Sarah Thomas begins with her feet firmly planted on the ground of home and school and eventually ascends to the spacey heights of Emily’s ghostly return to life. Finally, Brian Harwell mesmerizes in every scene he plays as Mr. Webb, drawing the audience in with his wit and charm. This Grover’s Corners will live on in God’s mind and ours.