Saturday, September 13, 2014

Grover's Corners in Kansas City

by Pa Rock
Theatre Fan

Our Town is one of the most enduring plays of the American theatre.   It is extremely minimalist in nature, and often presented on a nearly bare stage with only a couple of tables with chairs representing the two focus households of the production.  Most of the action is usually mimed. 

The play was written by Thornton Wilder during the Great Depression and just a couple of years before America’s entry into World War II.   It offers a nostalgic yet bitingly realistic look into small town American life at the turn of the twentieth century.    The fictional community is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. 

Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with Our Town in 1938.    He had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in 1927, and in 1942 he won yet another Pulitzer, this time for drama again, with his play, The Skin of Our Teeth.

My son, Tim, and I saw the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s version of Our Town, this past Thursday evening at the Spencer Theatre on the campus of the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  I had seen the play just a couple of years ago at the Phoenix Theatre and was unimpressed.  This production was better.

Tim and I have a history with Our Town, having both been in the Crowder College (Neosho, MO) production of the play twenty years ago.  One of the things that we talked about after the K.C. Rep’s version was the differences in the story between that version and this one – and we decided that the director at Crowder had cut out bits of the play and at least one semi-major character – the alcoholic choir director.

The most exceptional aspect of the Kansas City take on Our Town was the stagecraft.  The cast was unique in the way they were dressed – contemporary casual, with blue jeans being common apparel for the men and women. 

Quite a bit of the action was mimed, as occurs in most standard productions of the play, but the director chose to be more realistic in a couple of places.  There are two scenes where Mrs. Webb was stringing and snapping green beans.   In this production, she worked with actual green beans. 

The most startling turn away from the mimed action, however, occurred in the third act when the recently deceased Emily Webb Gibbs chose to relive a day in her life – her twelfth birthday.  As that scene began, two large wooden doors at the rear of the stage area slid open, revealing an actual old farm kitchen with sunlight pouring through the window.    Mr. Webb was at the kitchen table reading his newspaper, and Mrs. Webb was at the stove frying bacon – actually frying bacon – with the wonderful odor wafting through the theatre!  The contrast with the rest of the play was startling, delineating a vivid difference between life and death.

I read recently that Our Town has probably been seen by more people than any other American theatrical endeavor.  It offers much to think about, particularly the way we stay busy with unimportant things while life rushes by.    For those who haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen in in many years, watching Our Town might motivate you to get more out of life.

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