The last time I saw a play staged outdoors at Elings Park, the showy backdrop blew over in the middle of Act Two. A gust of wind flattened the set and — BAM! — there was simply no recovery.
Trying to improve upon nature is risky business. But the recent production of Our Town in the park’s Godric Grove had a better plan: Use the natural surroundings and treat them as a character in the play itself.
Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 play charmingly, and then chillingly, depicts life in turn-of-the-20th-century America, when doctors made house calls, milkmen went door to door, and soda jerks served strawberry phosphates to courtin’ couples. The script — following two neighboring families from youth to death — demands a minimalist set, stripped of distracting props, so that audiences can imagine it’s taking place in Their Town, USA. But staged in the naked stone amphitheater overlooking Santa Barbara’s red tile roofs, plum mountains, and a wide blue V of Pacific, this Our Town is unmistakably our town — and it’s as much a celebration of its extraordinary beauty as its insightful teenaged talent.
Think you know Our Town? You’ll be struck, in this setting, at how much the script exalts the great outdoors: sunsets, moonrises, chirping birds — all of which seem to show up on cue here, along with the occasional barking dog and passing plane. (And it’s right sweet to see the Act II nuptials on the very dirt stage where so many Santa Barbarans say, “I do.”)
Emmy winner and Tony nominee Cheri Steinkellner has been directing local youth productions for years and leads this cast of 17 teens through an Our Town that’s more grounded and less ethereal than most, with more laughs but no fewer goosebumps than you’d hope for. She keeps the plot at a snappy clip, sewing scenes together with haunting a cappella harmonies of olde-tyme ditties like “School Days” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon” and breaking the role of Stage Manager into two tandem roles played with engaging yin-and-yang by Emma Steinkellner and Albee Rothman.
There’s an uncanny depth to these young actors — especially Addison Clarke, Kevin Herald, Clayton Barry, and Allison Lewis — a recognition of life’s ironies and appreciation of its tiniest blessings that’s surely beyond their years.
You might find the modern costumes distracting, and the mosquitoes more so. And by the time one character notes at Act III’s end that it’s “a little cooler than it was,” and the audience begins drawing their wraps around them, you might be tired of the backless stone benches. But there’s no better spot in town (on Earth?) to affirm the play’s final warning that we must savor life as we live it.
Here’s another warning, though: Eating one’s dinner while watching live theater is living way, WAY too much in the moment. Do go early and picnic; do not shove a flipping potato chip into your face come 6:01. Capiche?