Inspired direction, refreshing diversity in casting, and striking production design breathe fresh new life into Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s classic bit of Americana that first astonished audiences in 1938 with its then revolutionary look at birth, life, love, and what comes after.
From Act One’s “Daily Life” in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, to Act Two’s “Love And Marriage” between neighboring sweethearts George Gibbs and Emily Webb, to Act Three’s “Death,” with the deceased of Grover’s Corners welcoming a still far-too-young newcomer to their midst, Our Town has captivated and moved audiences for nearly eighty years, and never more so than at Actors Co-op circa 2016.
To begin with, director Israel has cast his Our Town color-blind, reflecting both the universality of Wilder’s New England-specific play and the racial diversity of the city his actors call home.
Per Wilder’s instructions, Israel’s Our Town unfolds on a mostly bare set save for a few tables and chairs “for those who think they have to have scenery,” and with virtually no props to speak of, actors miming everyday tasks, as when Mrs. Gibbs prepares breakfast for her two children without need of actual pots and pans.
Israel then adds a sound design so strikingly original, it alone puts this Our Town in a class by itself.
We may not see the play’s invisible props (kitchen utensils, the milk man’s bottles, etc.) in characters’ hands, but we hear them, thanks to sound designer Cameron Combe, whose prerecorded clips (booming thunder, a horse’s whinny) are joined by Foley effects (utensils clacking, bottles clinking) created live by cast members seated upstage and even by an onstage violinist. (Having a salad spinner stand in for a lawn mower is a particularly clever touch.)
Israel’s innovations add contemporary flair to what was eight decades ago the most cutting-edge of plays, from its fourth-wall breaking “Stage Manager” narrator to its surreal third act and pretty much everything in between.
Crystal Jackson’s down-home Southern charmer of a Stage Manager offers wry commentary on the action as she propels us backwards and forwards through time and space, supported every step of the way by an all-around superb Actors Co-op cast.
James Simenc could hardly be more boy-next-door appealing as George Gibbs opposite Eva Abramian’s lovely Emily Webb, Act Three offering both young actors the chance to dig deep into the pain and regret of a life cut all too short.
David Atkinson, RJ Farrington, Richard Soto, and Heather Chesley make powerful impressions as salt-of-the-earth Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs and Mr. and Mrs. Webb.
Christopher Salazar* stands out among featured players as Grover’s Corners authority Professor Willard and as drunken-wreck choir director Simon Stinson, born in the wrong place (and about a century too soon) to live his life out-and-proud.
Tim Hodgin’s folksy milkman Howie Newsome, Deborah Marlowe’s busybody-licious Mrs. Soames, and Vanessa Benavente’s town returnee Sara Craig (Sam in Wilder’s original script) provide memorable support as well.
Child actors Gunnar Sizemore (Joe Crowell, Si Crowell), Isabella Magas (Rebecca Gibbs), and Joseph Arujo (Wally Webb) are preteen charmers, with Shannon Dieriex, Deanna Hudgens, and Michael Worden completing the uniformly splendid cast in assorted cameos.
Scenic designer Rich Rose’s deliberately stark white brick-walled set, Lisa D. Katz’s evocative lighting design, and Vicki Conrad’s mostly era-unspecific costumes add to this Our Town’s appeal, as does Anthony Zedicker’s nostalgia-inducing original musical, performed live by Eden Livingood on violin and Jean-Paul Barjon on cello.
Our Town is produced by Lauren Thompson. Amanda Rountree is stage manager.
Classic American theater at its most powerful, thought-provoking, and potentially life changing, Richard Israel’s stunning new take on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town opens Actors Co-op’s Silver Anniversary season with humor, heart, and hope.
*Christian T. Chan will be playing Professor Willard and Simon Stimson through the rest of the run.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
October 2, 2016
Photos: Michael Lamont