We live, we get married, then we die – the seemingly simple premise of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, staged under the stars, in the courtyard, at the home of the Black Swan State Theatre Company.
Clare Watson has made a wonderful decision to use the courtyard as the playing space. The almost in-the-round configuration and glimpses of Perth’s surrounds contributed literally to a sense of ‘Our Town’. Clare brings some clear and sensitive direction to bear on this production capturing simultaneously the hustle and bustle of the town, the stillness of gardens, and the intimacy and tensions of homes. The balcony of the courtyard was put to good use to represent upper bedrooms. The sense of ‘Main Street’ could have been rendered more clearly. While it was pointed out and nominated by the ‘Stage Manager’ (narrator) at the beginning of the play its prominence was slightly diminished by its physical dimensions (a 1-2m wide strip of floor that ran the length of the courtyard between the stage and the audience) and the fact that members of the town, for example the paper boy and the milkman, made their rounds around the stage thus evoking, at times, a sense of a ring road. Granted, these delivery persons do normally go around a neighbourhood but the thoroughfare of Grover’s Corners may arguably have come into better focus if the human traffic of the stage was confined to two directions.
Tyler Hill has captured well the essence of Wilder’s chef-d’oeuvre by choosing wood (it seems) as the prime material on which the story plays out – along with some wooden tables and chairs – wood that silent witness of humanity, often in the form of dwellings and the objects found in them.
With such a bare set, settings were at times rendered beautifully and poetically by Chloe Ogilvie’s lighting design – a dawn, a moonlit night, a ‘normal day’…many people take for granted lighting at the theatre and forget just how much of an impact this element can have on storytelling.
Ian Michael’s tone and bearing were entirely appropriate for the role of the ‘Stage Manager’, who acted as a kind of narrator throughout the play. Ian was well-in tune with the moods of the play. Ian also seamlessly doubled as George Gibbs, a typical teenager who would go on to marry his friend and neighbour Emily Webb, played by Abbie-lee Lewis. Abbie carried the climax of the play brilliantly when she returns (spoiler alert!) ‘from the dead’ to relive her 12th birthday. Playing exhilaration and sadness at the same time is extremely challenging for an actor but Abbie pulled it off beautifully and left us all wondering why we do indeed go through life blind, never stopping to appreciate the truly beautiful things life can offer. What perhaps didn’t come off so convincingly for Abbie was the portrayal of the younger, naive, and wide-eyed Emily. Abbie is probably far more worldly than the character she plays and while actors often thrive playing a character who is beyond their own level of experience, I have not seen many actors who can play well below it. How does an actor see the world as if they haven’t seen it yet?
The intimacy of the relationships in the town was enhanced by the headphones audience members were asked to wear. Sound Designer Russell Goldsmith did not miss the opportunity to make us dream with a stirring soundscape. Hardly noticeable at times, quite conspicuous at others, Russell should be thanked for giving us wings.
Conductor Jonathan Paxman: Rhythmos Choir are also to be thanked for bringing a beautiful sense of prayer and ritual to the story. Their pieces both compelled the drama forward and made time stop for a while, it seemed.
Time – life, in fact – was also stopped by the other-worldly voice adopted by Shari Sebbens towards the end of a play as she played her post-life self commenting coldly on mundanity. Shari was all the more ‘dead’ given the quite contrary way she played Julia (‘Mother’) Gibbs in life.
A wonderful production featuring a large number of other actors, and some actual members of the community, who but enhanced the story. If the play suffers from anything it might arguably be from a lack of pace at times. Wilder’s dialogue can suck one into thinking that the characters politely take their turn to speak. If the actors don’t pick up their cues, ‘life is boring in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire’ can be the message but the banter in the town among all and sundry is anything but, and I imagine that’s why Thorton Wilder had the urge to capture it for the ages.