Theater Review - True Colors brings urban renewal to Our Town
Life is short, but Thornton Wilder's message endures
Kenny Leon clearly intends to shake the dust off the sleepy village of Grover's Corners. In the classic play Our Town, Thornton Wilder gleaned universal truths from the mundane details of life in early 20th-century New Hampshire. Wilder goes far to enumerate Grover's Corners' place in the universe; its geological history; and its majority ethnic population of "English brachiocephalic blue-eyed stock," along with some "Slav and Mediterranean" additions.
True Colors' production of Our Town gerrymanders Grover's Corners' demographic with colorblind casting to place African-American families and citizens alongside the WASPs, with nary a raised eyebrow. But while Leon's Our Town strays from the letter of Wilder's text, it keeps faith with the spirit of the play.
The production opens with a kind of a cappella musical overture as the cast strides into the audience singing a lovely medley of rootsy Americana songs, from "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" to "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." Act Two's wedding scene features the even more anachronistic selection of a vintage Al Jarreau R&B tune. Placing a diversity of songs at the heart of the American experience makes the stunt casting seem more natural (particularly, I suspect, in the South).
The inclusivity extends to the role of Stage Manager, Our Town's omniscient yet folksy narrator, here played tag-team style by Daniel May and Ellis "Skeeter" Williams. The latter injects as much comedic spin in his lines as possible, and even imitates train whistles like a playful grandfather. The Stage Managers draw our attention to some of the town's citizens, particularly the neighboring families of Dr. Gibbs (Neal Ghant) and newspaper editor Mr. Webb (Mark Kincaid).
Apart from recurring bits of small talk about the weather, most of the conversations in the first two acts hinge on how to live one's life. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb (Donna Biscoe and Jill Jane Clements, respectively) snap beans and discuss the merits of seizing the day. Teenagers Emily Webb (Bethany Lind) and George Gibbs (Eugene Russell IV) unexpectedly fall in love when she calls him on "a flaw in my character," as he puts it.
Leon's production's flaw, however, is its difficulty connecting to the teenage characters. The actors struggle to maintain firm grips on the personalities of young people from an earlier, pre-ironic era. They often come across as considerably younger than the roles' given ages. Russell underplays George so much, it's hard to tell what he's going for. This tenuousness makes Act Two's emphasis on love and marriage something of a snooze.
Lind, however, proves heartbreakingly sympathetic in the third act, which primarily takes place at the town's cemetery. For the first two acts, the set features chairs hanging on wires over the Webb side of the stage, foreshadowing the third act's death in the family. Despite the town's Christian denominations, the detached dead seem to be awaiting nirvana, gradually releasing the material world and "Waiting for the eternal part of them to come out clear."
Leon takes an unnecessary liberty with the use of a more realistic set piece, as opposed to Wilder's spare stage directions meant to leave the details to our imagination. Unconventional concepts aside, Our Town's third act retains remarkable powers to provoke spectators to question how well they're using their time on Earth. Life is short and death so long – no matter who we are, or where we're from.