Theater review: The Grand's lovely 'Our Town' is essential viewing

Published: Monday, Jan. 27 2014 5:10 p.m. MST

"OUR TOWN" — The Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State, through Feb. 8, $10-$24, 801-957-3322 or the-grand.org

Two tables encircled by a few chairs. A pair of church pews. Two ladders. On a nearly bare stage, playwright Thornton Wilder beckons theatergoers into an exploration of our universal human experience.

“Our Town” affectionately captures the small joys of everyday life as viewed from the perspective of eternity.

The Grand Theatre celebrates the 75th anniversary of this cherished, Pulitzer Prize-winning American classic. Warm and lovely, this staging is essential viewing for audiences anxious to delight in yet another sturdy production and first-timers in need of an introduction.

“Our Town” tells the story of two ordinary families, the Gibbs and the Webbs, living in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, N.H. In three acts, we experience life’s great milestones: new life, first love, long-lasting love and the effect of death. The last act holds a special significance. Wilder uses the theme of death to show the reader how humans fail to “realize life while they live it.”

“Oh, earth. You’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” observes a lead character.

Director Mark Fossen, who has expertly led previous classic dramas at The Grand, assembled a top-notch cast that strengthens the emotional power of “Our Town.” He honors the deliberate slow tempo and allows us to recognize how Wilder constructs meaningful poetry out of simple, everyday language.

Equity actor Robert Scott Smith plays the Stage Manager who controls the proceedings. When he decides it’s time for a scene to end, he steps in and announces it. He even slips in and out of scenes, playing some minor supporting roles. Smith masterfully encompasses the casual wryness of his conversations with the audience and balances the gentle humor laced throughout the play. Particularly enjoyable is his contemporary approach to these dialogs, which connects the audience as fellow observers.

There is also the luminous performance of Haeleigh Royall as Emily Webb. She plays the crucial role, young and capricious when she first appears then growing in self-awareness and understanding. She captures the play’s spiritual essence in her calm, knowing portrayal.

Playing one of the matriarchs in the two households, Betsy West gives an exceptional performance. As Mrs. Webb, West is an entirely practical homemaker until she tries to explain her tears at her daughter’s wedding, one of the striking moments of the play an actor may overlook.

It is necessary to look beyond the weak point in this production, which is the costuming. It’s a fine choice for the Stage Manager to wear modern-day garb, but there’s no unifying aspect in what should be consistently period wardrobe for the other cast members. The designers also missed the opportunity to establish the characters’ progression through their hairstyle and clothing selections.

A superb technical element is the gratifying lighting design by Spencer Brown. It is subtle yet meaningful.

“Our Town” artfully erases the pretense and clutter of daily existence to reveal how life might look viewed from the other side. We perform too many acts and cross too many paths without noticing their worth.

Stop, Wilder instructs. Enjoy this moment. Recognize the value of each new day.

Hand in glove with Wilder, the creative team at The Grand wants to encourage a desire to savor the fullness of life. Enjoy this “Our Town” before it, too, passes by.

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