Our Town (Queensland)
January 30 – February 20
Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre
As it is probably across all artistic disciplines, classics of the theatre can polarise audience members. The spirited debate around Thorton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play “Our Town” is a testament to this and also a reminder of everything we love and have missed about live theatre. Indeed, it is easy to appreciate audience trepidation upon entry into Queensland Theatre’s Bille Brown Studio; Wilder’s metatheatrical ode to small-town American life in Grover’s Corners requires only minimal production values with the playwright calling for no curtain, no scenery, and an empty stage in half-light.
The play ignores most dramatic conventions. It is set in the actual theatre where it is being performed, but the year is, as always, May 7, 1901. The Stage Manager of the May 7, 1901 production introduces the play within-the-play which is set in the fictional community. From the darkness of its startling full blackout beginning, it is a slow start as charismatic Stage Manager narrator (an affable Jimi Bani) breaks the fourth wall to connect with and introduce the audience to the residents of the small New Hampshire Anywhere USA town of the show’s title, from the 15 other performers who have appeared on stage, where they will remain for the most of the show, even when not directly involved in the contained scope of most scenes.
Much like Australia’s own “Cloudstreet”, the story is about two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs, living next door to each other in a country town. The time capsule play as acknowledged by the playwright himself, is clearly of its era; women spend their days cooking, cleaning, washing and watching over their children as the men go off to work, while boys play sports and girls seem more studious. Yet, there are recognisable nods to the transcendence of its themes as performers enter wearing masks and characters elbow bump some of their hellos.
What follows over the show’s lengthy almost three-hour duration (including two intervals) is the creation of a still-engaging world through performances as the cast fills the space of staging with small touches that bring big laughs as characters pantomime their activities and invite us to accept the visual transformations that occur as the storyline unfolds. For example, milk crates become Bessie the horse and an egg beater is reappropriated as a lawn mower, while step ladder perches allow us to peer inside teenage bedroom windows. Experience of Act One, in particular is akin to watching a radio play unfold, with inventive sound effects adding to the cleverness of its realisation and components of Nathalie Ryner’s versatile costume design assisting in the change of scenes sans staging.
“Our Town” is certainly unusual when it comes to structure. Not only does it contain a number of flashbacks to the past and flash-forwards to the future, but it includes little action because nothing exciting ever really happens in Grover’s Corners, which is exactly its point. At times we see characters like Mrs Gibbs (Libby Munro) and Mrs Webb (Amy Lehpamer) simultaneous undertaking domestic activity alongside each other on stage in emphasis of the sameness of their every day experiences. As the production continues, it not only embraces details like this, found in the simplest, most every day occurrences, but it finds the funny in these fragments of life, which adds to its appeal.
Act One begins in 1901 and sets about conveying the beauty of everyday life. Professor Willard (Andrew Buchanan) speaks to the audience about the history of the town. The milk and paper are being delivered over trivial conversations about the weather as the Webb and Gibbs households send their children off to school. It is quiet story, patient in its simplicity and as the town settles under a bright moon, we are moved to Act Two (set three years later) and its focus on Love and Marriage, and then finally its moving third act, entitled Death and Eternity, focussing on mankind’s failure to appreciate the beauty of existence. All the while, the Stage Manager talks directly to the audience, and attempts to move the action along. After he introduces us to how Doctor Gibbs (Colin Smith) and his wife, with explanation of how they will eventually pass away, we want to know the details of other characters too, such is our level of investment in their stories thanks to Wilder’s script, Lee Lewis’ considered direction and the performances on those on stage.
The actors are uniformly fine. As the story proceeds it becomes apparent that the story of Act One neighbours and school friends George Gibbs (Jayden Popkin) and Emily Webb (Lucy Heathcote) is at its core. It is appropriate, therefore that the duo deliver the most noteworthy performances. Heathcoate is assured in the role, effectively conveying Emily’s development from conscientious and fussy daughter to smitten teenager and then reflective wife. It is an enigmatic performance; as she emerges from a flashback to Emily’s nervous awkwardness in confession of her love over an ice cream soda with George, there is little hint as to the astonishing poignancy that she will pivot her performance to in Act Three.
Popik continues to impress in a role so distinctly different to that of his Queensland Theatre debut last year in “Mouthpiece”. He not only conveys the essential decency of high school baseball star George, who plans to attend the State Agricultural School after high school, but he is fully funny, especially in his Act Two wedding morning conversation with his out-of-his-depth and out of touch soon-to-be father-in-law (Hugh Parker). His ability to find the humour in even a sideways glance conveys a talent beyond his years and the promise of his career to come, especially when he also then rises the challenge of the emotional tilt of a sombre Act Three.
The show notably also features four talented actors from Queensland Theatre’s Young Artists’ Ensemble, making their mainstage debut, and while the energy of these performers (Angus Freer, Mia Foley, Luca Klarwein and Ava Ryan) adds to the on-stage dynamic, it is ultimately anchored by its who’s who cast of more seasoned performers. In particular, Roxanne McDonald gets laughs before even opening her mouth as the town’s young paperboy Joe before later infectiously sharing her love of love as gossipy chorister Mrs Soames when the town gathers for George and Emily’s wedding.
“Our Town” may be set in America, but it not just about life in that country or of the time of its setting. Rather, it is about little moments that can become big moments of everybody’s lives, even if only with retrospect, effectively summarised in Emily’s final act ask, “Does any human being ever realise life while they live it — every, every minute?” While its slice-of-life drama depiction may not be accurate, but rather a presentation through a nostalgic lens, this brings with it a comfort that is much needed in confronting times. The fact that this production is one of the few playing in a world that usually sees hundreds of productions of the play each night, makes it even more special, beyond just its always-timely reminder to cherish life’s small moments. It seems appropriate that a show celebrating the return to theatre is one of pure storytelling and character and “Our Town” is exactly this… a beautiful celebration-of-life story about compassion, love and taking care of each other through the inevitable tragedies and triumphant joys of life in all of our towns.
Photos c/o: Pia Johnson