Where does Thornton Wilder’s Our Town take place? It’s a simple question with at least three answers.
This quietly profound classic takes place in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Literally, it takes place in a theater — currently, the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, which is staging a new production directed by Jenny Sullivan.
But in the most meaningful sense, it takes place in the mind of the viewer. Its universal themes — the way we live our lives, find our mates, and ultimately meet our maker — inspire audiences to connect with the characters on an unusually deep level.
The lack of scenery — the work is always done on a bare stage with just a few props — helps this process along. We fill in the visual details with our own imaginations, which are strongly influenced by our own hopes, fears, and memories.
The best advice for a director approaching this material is to keep things simple and honest. The words will do the rest. Sullivan’s production, unfortunately, tends to call attention to itself, which somewhat diminishes the play’s power.
Not entirely, to be sure. Thanks in large part to a strong performance by Lauren Patten as Emily Webb, the conclusion is enormously moving. It’s Patten who gets to say the famous line, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” and her tone is perfect: pleading, confused, yearning. Wake up, she implores us. Life is slipping away. Don’t waste a moment.
The final act, which she dominates, makes this production very much worth seeing, especially for those who have never experienced a professional production of this American masterpiece. But getting there is sometimes frustrating, thanks to an uneven cast and a central concept that doesn’t quite work.
The Rubicon has been reconfigured for this production, in which the action takes place literally in every corner of the theater. Seats have been installed behind the stage, and a ramp juts out into the audience, splitting the main seating section in two. Certain scenes are staged on that ramp, in the back of the hall, and even in the tiny balcony.
The worthy idea was to bring the action closer to the audience. But with the resultant awkward sight lines, the effect is, in reality, emotionally distancing. The characters should be framed by darkness so our imaginations can go to work. Instead, they’re framed by the faces of audience members watching from the other side of the narrow stage.
Happily, a number of the performances are sharp enough to transcend these distractions. Besides Patten, the standouts include Tom Astor as Emily’s father, Mr. Webb, and Remi Sandri as Dr. Gibbs, the town physician. His tough-love talk with his teenage son, George (Dillon Francis), is one of the show’s highlights.
Outstanding in smaller roles are Joseph Fuqua as a haunted alcoholic and Robin Gammell, who seems to be channeling the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan not James Franco) as a professor eager to share facts about the town’s history. As the stage manager, who narrates the action, Rubicon artistic director Jim O’Neil wisely avoids folksiness, although he arguably lands a bit too firmly on the side of seriousness. A little more wry humor wouldn’t hurt.
While Jonathan Burke’s sound design proves intrusive at times, the lighting design, by Peter Hunt and Jeremy Pivnick, is superb. The scene that ends Act One, in which so many characters comment on the bright moonlight, looks absolutely enchanting.