Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Review: 'Our Town'

Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company offers a sturdy version of Thornton Wilder's masterpiece outdoors, in parks and public spaces across the region. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews the opening, on the grounds of Abington Arts Center in Montgomery County.

Review: 'Our Town'

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Eric Scotolati (left), Paul Parente, Kristen Egermeier in "Our Town."

By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Our Town
is one of the most delectable old chestnuts of the American stage and also one of its great paradoxes — a thoroughly life-affirming play that when it’s done best, makes you feel sad.

Some productions of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 masterpiece sweep happy-go-luckily through the cycle of life in little fictional Grovers Corners, N.H., and even the third act, in a cemetery, comes off soft. But the finest Our Towns make you cry, or want to. They accentuate the life-changes when every gain means something lost — for instance, the young bride and groom, about to march down the aisle, realize they are giving up their protection and a part of their youth.

That scene in Act 2 is especially nicely played in the Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company production of Our Town that opened Thursday night on the grounds of the Abington Arts Center in Montgomery County, and will travel to areas parks and public spaces, changing venues nightly over the next two weeks. Except for a cloud cover that blocked the real stars referred to in the third act, opening night was beautiful and the verdant location was perfect for the show, done with a bare-bones (a little too bare-bones) set of two ladders, chairs and a clothesline.

One of the reasons the play has been so popular is its demand that we cherish each day, especially the unexceptional ones — something obvious and worthwhile, but generally unachievable. (Faced with a day of laundry and chores? Tell me about it.) Commonwealth Classic’s production, directed neatly by Allen Radway, has no room for flourishes out there in the fields; it comes to the point and doesn’t even put its narrator, in his celebrated role, out into the crowds a few feet away.

That part is played with a charming authority by Paul Parente, whose generalized New England accent is so good it makes you realize that no one else is speaking his language. This puts a damper on the production’s believability and also highlights the benefits of hiring a dialect coach, much needed here.

That’s especially true for Eric Scotolati, whose super-stressed “g”s and “t”s give his otherwise strong performance as George, the main young man in the cast, an amateur sheen; he unfortunately has a lot of “going to”s to say, all of them delivered as if he learned English on the stage.

Nevertheless, he portrays his character sweetly, as does Kristen Egermeier as Emily, the gal next door who later, in marriage, becomes the woman of his house, and even later is the ghost who looks on at him. Except for a tad much blubbering at the end, when she realizes that the dead must remain so, she’s wonderful as she gets older.

The rest of the large cast is uneven, but not so much as to dent the play or diminish its power, and Trice Baldwin as George’s mother is a standout for her spot-on timing and delivery. The production is enhanced by the music of sound designer John Greenbaum, who plays the ukulele at prime moments.

I apologize for being unable to tell you about the key players’ character development — so important to a play that begins with them in stages of youth and young adulthood and ends with them dead. By the time I reached the grounds in Abington, the first act was only a few minutes from over; too many theater stories to cover on my part, too little time. Too little time, of course, is what Our Town is all about, and too many things done and paths crossed without noticing their worth to your life.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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Our Town, from Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company, runs through July 28 in parks throughout the region. Perfiormances are free. For places, times and dates visit www.commonwealthclassictheatre.org.   

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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