Review: '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.

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

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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