Civitas Theatre

at the Greenview Arts Center


Second City E.T.C.

“Once in a thousand times it’s interesting,” says the all-knowing Stage Manager in Our Town. He’s referring to marriage, but he could also be speaking of the play itself. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama of small-town turn-of-the-century American life was innovative in its day; seeking to pare away the stagy family-drama cliches of the time, Wilder and producer-director Jed Harris dispensed with standard naturalistic trappings of setting and performance and offered in their place a nearly bare stage, a narrative that shifted fluidly between past and present and life and death, and actors who casually broke character as they were guided in and out of scenes by the Stage Manager, who related the story. Over the years these anticliches have themselves become cliches, and generations of viewers, subjected to cloyingly cute and sickly sentimental Our Town stagings at high schools, colleges, and community theaters, have written the script off as irritating and irrelevant nostalgia mongering.

Happily, Civitas Theatre’s new production is one of the one-in-a-thousand that reveals how interesting Our Town can be. Directed by Peter C. Hobert and played by mostly youthful actors who make no cosmetic effort to simulate age, this production aims at a vigorous spontaneity that conveys anew the originality of Wilder’s vision, and for the first half at least it succeeds. Though the performance I saw fell far short of the profound emotion the play’s climax is capable of stirring, it still conveyed enough bracing insight and energy to validate Wilder’s transcendental vision of the human essence.

I stress “the performance I saw” because a different show might produce very different results. Of the cast’s 12 members, 11 switch parts from one show to the next: the play’s famous opening, in which the Stage Manager introduces the actors in their roles, gets a new twist here because the announcement is the first time these performers know the role they’re playing that night. The effect is deliberately akin to watching improv players assume characters suggested at the moment by the audience; and though the actors don’t improvise on the script onstage, they surely do in rehearsal (and in the preperformance warm-up rituals they conduct onstage as the audience is entering). The process shows in the alert, reconceived readings of famous scenes such as Dr. Gibbs’s firm but gentle reprimand to his teenage son George for shirking his chores, young Emily Webb impetuously asking her mother “Am I pretty?” as they string beans together, Emily’s newspaper- editor father fielding questions from actors planted in the audience, the alcoholic choirmaster leading his church singers through their hymns, and the various phases of George Gibbs’s shy romance with his neighbor Emily Webb–from whispered nighttime conversations from their bedroom windows to ice-cream sodas at the drugstore to marriage-altar jitters to George’s collapse at Emily’s gravestone after she’s died in childbirth.

Wilder’s goal of breaking through the “fourth wall” between actors and audiences, so essential to his message of humanity’s common links, is well served by the fresh and intelligent work of the whole ensemble, who are both contemporary in spirit and faithful in style to Wilder’s setting of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between 1899 and 1913. (Their work is enhanced by Nanette M. Acosta’s just-right period costumes, Mark Netherland’s subtle shadowy lighting, and the Aaron Copland music that introduces each act.) The most untraditional performance comes from Marjie Rynearson as the Stage Manager: she dispenses with the role’s usual old-coot accoutrements of pipe and hat. The most interesting work at the show I saw was Laura Veselka’s brainy, intense Emily–though, as I’ve said, her climactic realization of the transience of life failed to pack the punch it should. Perhaps she was off that night, perhaps another actress will do the job better–those are the risks of the Civitas strategy. The strengths are evident in an Our Town that’s astonishingly unpredictable and nostalgia-free.

If Civitas tries to eliminate cliches, the Second City E.T.C. company wallows in them like pigs in the mud. The troupe’s rude and amusing current show, The Heliotrope Players’ Production of Thornton Wilder’s American Classic, Our Town, as Directed by d’Eric Blakemore, or Cash Stations of the Cross, gives its inspiration a thorough trashing by sending up every schlocky rendition the play’s ever gotten from bad community theaters. The Heliotrope Players, we are told in a program note, recently moved to Chicago from Peoria Basin Community College; their repertoire also includes a Chekhov musical, Three Sisters for Three Brothers, and a forthcoming national tour of Kabuki Brady Bunch. While waiting for funding to come through (don’t hold your breath), prissy director d’Eric Blakemore and his troupe serve up an often hilarious, sometimes pungent Our Town for the 90s: the setting is a recession-racked, post-Pat Buchanan New Hampshire, where local conversation is apt to concern classroom drug tests, collapsing breast implants, physician-assisted suicide, and physician- implanted sperm. Oh yes, and Elvis Presley stamps. Meanwhile the nation’s economy is going to hell in a hand basket–Wilder’s insight that people ignore the big things to concentrate on petty details gets a sharp sociopolitical spin here.

The main source of humor is George and Emily’s courtship: a clever letter-writing scene incorporates audience suggestions on the spot, while a crudely comic first kiss gets laughs with its sheer obviousness. But the show’s witty creators–actors Rose Abdoo, Megan Moore Burns, Kevin Michael Doyle, Joe Liss, David Razowsky, and Ruth Rudnick, director Nate Herman, and composer- pianist Dan Gillogly–also satisfy more sophisticated sensibilities with digs at other works in the family-drama genre. Bits of It’s a Wonderful Life, Death of a Salesman, Marty, and even Rebel Without a Cause pop up here; so do allusions to Spoon River Anthology, ethnic cable TV stations, and slapstick cartoons. If all this sounds just too untraditional, never fear: at least the Stage Manager here smokes a pipe and wears a hat. And of course the standard improv-comedy trappings–bare stage, a couple of chairs, pantomimed actions, and offstage sound effects–fit Our Town perfectly; Wilder used them long before Second City was around.