Penobscot Theatre Company triumphantly turns its stage into Grover’s Corners, N.H., the every-town that author Thornton Wilder imagined when he wrote “Our Town.”
The set looks like polished barn wood. The lights shimmer like stars. The cast breathes depth and energy into the characters. And, all of it is underscored by the breathtaking music of Jacob Augustine.
Director Bari Newport and her production team of scenic designer Tricia A. Hobbs, lighting designer Scout Hough and costume designer Rebecca Wright create a warm, inviting glow onstage that makes even theater-goers who know how the romance of Emily and George will end forget the future and bask only in the joy of the present.
Much of the credit for that mood belongs to Brendan Powers’ performance as the Stage Manager. He is inviting and earnestly enthusiastic about sharing the town and its inhabitants with the audience. There is an open Midwestern quality about him that defies the stereotype of taciturn New Englander that others have brought to the role.
Bangor native Monica Willey sparkles as Emily Webb. She portrays all the pent-up energy and passion of youth. Willey, who lives in New York City, could have chosen to let Emily react angrily to her fate, but that would have been contrary to the character’s soul, which the actress shared with the audience. Willey’s Emily is not a perfect person, but she has a pure heart.
As George Gibbs, Jordan Lorenz, a junior at Colby College, captures all the awkwardness of adolescence. Just as George is overwhelmed by Emily, Lorenz, sometimes, is overpowered by the more experienced Willey. The actor, somehow, turns that to his advantage and uses it to portray a boy under the spell of an amazing girl.
Local actors Doug Meswarb, Irene Dennis, Ron Lisnet and Julie Arnold Lisnet as Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs and Mr. and Mrs. Webb, respectively, wear their roles like fine fitting leather gloves. Nick Danby, Nathan Manaker and scene stealer Bronwyn Beardsley are delightful as the town’s children and hold their own with the adult actors.
Newport weaves together a fine tapestry of professional and local actors whose performances are underscored by Augustine’s original music. It is haunting and lyrical without ever becoming intrusive or overpowering.
Despite the high quality of this production, it sent me out of the theater feeling a deep sense of loss. I did not experience a renewed appreciation of the small moments in life as the playwright apparently intended. One reason for this is the recent and senseless loss of Tamela Glenn, a local actress who performed in “Our Town” in 1998, the last time Penobscot Theatre Company produced the play and the last time I saw it.
Another is the play itself. Despite Penobscot Theatre Company and other theater companies’ efforts to make the script universal, Wilder’s story, especially in its portrayal of women, is mired in the societal demands of the early 20th century. Viewing this play from 2014, Emily’s death is a double whammy. Not only is a vibrant and intelligent character lost to a life event that almost never kills anyone today, but the potential of every Emily who never had the opportunity to consider an education and a life beyond her hometown is lost, too.
“Our Town” is a classic that simply has not stood the test of time the way, for example, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has.
Next season, however, looks promising. Penobscot Theatre Company announced on program inserts the shows it will present later this year and next — “The Honky Tonk Angels,” “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Guys on Ice,” “End Days,” and “August: Osage County.”
Performances of “Our Town” are set for 7 p.m. April 30, May 1 and May 7-8; 7:30 p.m. May 2-3 and May 9-10; 5 p.m. and 3 p.m. 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.