There likely have been as many versions of Thornton Wilder’s classic American play “Our Town” as there have been versions of “Hamlet.” There’s the traditional way, with no real set. There are period settings, with turn of the century costumes and full set pieces reflecting the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, N.H., where the play is set. There have been musicals, versions in different languages, an opera, big Broadway productions and shoestring budget community theater versions.
Only Penobscot Theatre Company’s upcoming production, however, has a score written by Lincoln-based singer-songwriter Jacob Augustine — one that gives the whole show an otherworldly, ethereal atmosphere. PTC’s “Our Town,” which opens Thursday, April 24, at the Bangor Opera House, is an “Our Town” that could only happen in our time.
“It was never a play that was on my radar because, of course, it’s been done a thousand times,” said Bari Newport, PTC’s artistic director and the director of this show. “But I started to think about it for this season, and it seemed like this year, our 40th anniversary year, was really a perfect time to stage it … I think it makes you think about a lot of those big ideas, the passage of time, love and death and everything.”
In 2012, Newport saw Augustine perform in Bangor, and immediately afterward bought all five of his albums. For the past year, she has had his CDs in her car, listening to them constantly.
“I knew as soon as we decided to do ‘Our Town’ that I wanted Jacob to write music for it,” said Newport. “Getting in touch with him was the first thing I did.”
Augustine possesses a huge, multi-octave voice that can leap from a bellowing baritone to a ghostly falsetto. He has also shown a penchant for unorthodox instrumentation, be it glockenspiel or marimba, found drum sounds or whistling.
“This has been an incredible experience for me. I’ve always wanted to score something, and this play deals with all the stuff that I think about constantly,” said Augustine. “Death, love, life. I’m not a lot of fun to talk to because that’s all I think about. But it’s perfect for this.”
To create the unique sonic world of PTC’s “Our Town,” Augustine has assembled for himself a small orchestra onstage, conducted and performed entirely by himself. He has guitars, both acoustic and electric, a glockenspiel, a kettle drum and other instruments, with which he creates a sound that brings to mind minimalist composers such as Philip Glass or Terry Riley.
The stage manager — the main role of “Our Town,” that guides and pushes the story forward, mostly breaking the fourth wall — is played by Brendan Powers, last seen on PTC’s stage as Daddy Warbucks in their Christmas 2012 production of “Annie.”
Playing George Gibbs, the sweet but immature boy next door, is Jordan Lorenz of Hermon; playing Emily Webb, George’s vivacious, intelligent girl love interest is Monica Willey, a Bangor native and New York-based equity actor, in her first role in Bangor in more than a decade. Local actors including Allen Adams, Bronwyn Beardsley, Bob Daisey, Nick Danby, Irene Dennis, Shaun Dowd, Julie and Ron Lisnet, Nathan Manaker, Doug Meswarb, Doreen Moody, and Steve Robbins round out the 15-person cast.
The set, designed by Tricia Hobbs, is as minimal as playwright Wilder intended, washed over with a soft violet glow, with dangling filament light bulbs standing in for the stars; Rebecca Wright’s costumes take cues from turn of the century fashion, but could just as easily be seen on streets and front porches today. The bare-bones set, combined with Augustine’s mostly wordless, often spookily evocative music, makes this “Our Town” feel as though it could exist in any time, be it 1901 or 2014.
Performances of “Our Town” are set for 7 p.m. April 24, April 30, May 1 and May 7-8; 7:30 p.m. April 25, May 2-3 and May 9-10; 5 p.m. April 26 and 3 p.m. April 27, May 4 and May 11. For tickets, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.
The Bangor Daily News is a sponsor of The Penobscot Theatre Company.