Theatre has two hooks to lure you in: a good play and a good production. At a pinch, either should do, but what the audience hopes for is a good production of a good play. And that’s what it gets in Our Town, the Centenary Theatre Group’s current drama, which is directed by NIDA graduate Ron Finney. As he is a fellow member of Stagediary’s panel of reviewers, that was a great relief to me, since it meant that I wasn’t faced with any conflict of interest.
I went to see Our Town expecting a very traditional and light-hearted piece of Americana and finding a number of surprises which suggested that it wasn’t for being staid and predictable that Thornton Wilder got the Pulitzer Prize for this script. To keep that element of surprise, I’m going to try to avoid telling you much more about it than that it is about small-town American life and families in the first half of the 1900s. As such, it’s interesting to contrast this earlier view of American families with the more contemporary one that has caused such a lot of recent debate, in Jonathon Franzen’s The Corrections. Intriguingly, however, parts of Our Town also go in a very different direction, one that anticipates to some degree the innovative perspective of another current novel, Lovely Bones.
Finney has done the play justice in his direction of a large cast with a considerable bounty of talent. Remarkably, on this small stage, the 14 actors work the space without it ever seeming crowded, and with a number of standout performances. Bob Soltys is a most genial Stage Manager, very smooth and relaxed, and with an American accent that sounds so natural that you have to wonder if it is his native speech. A check of the cast list shows that, in fact, it is. All he needs, now, is a technique for glossing over the occasional minor hesitations in his monologues: he is so good that they are more noticeable than they would otherwise be. Another delightful performance is that of Luke Cadden, as the gangly and increasingly less callow George Gibbs. It took me a short while to realise his acting strength, however, because at the start he plays just too nice and amiable to fit his parents’ description of him as the average rebellious teenager.
His parents as played by Elizabeth Innes and Paul Newman (no, the other one) could be described as a physical mismatch, both with each other and with the ages they are supposed to be. Innes looks too young to be 20 years married, while Newman goes the other way, looking somewhat older than would be expected for his part. And while Newman fits into the doctor’s role like an extremely comfortable pair of shoes, Innes is as bland as her cheeks are smooth, until the last act, when somewhat ironically under the circumstances she is in at the time she suddenly transforms herself into an actor with feeling.
The other parental couple, Mr and Mrs Webb Selina Kadell and Peter Luxton fit and work well together. And they, as do almost all of the non-American cast members, have very credible American accents that accord with the setting of the play. In the key role of Emily Webb, however, Bridget Sullivan needs to go much further back than Buffy for guidance on intonation. And, at the same time, she needs to give her shorter lines as much attention as she does her more sustained and impassioned speeches.
Among other roles, Mark Scott develops his part as the alcoholic Simon Stimson gradually and credibly into the full flowering of his embittered character; and Maria Ingra-Fry (as Mrs Soames) is especially distinguished by a brash style and appearance that is unnervingly like comedian Marge Downey until the third act, where she and a number of others (but not Scott) seem to equate solemnity with a sometimes almost inaudible softness of voice that needs to be cranked up just a notch.
Ingra-Fry is also responsible for the timely costumes of that era, while Graham MacKenzie’s set is interestingly minimalist. He deliberately leaves a lot to the imagination, and this is matched by the use of mime for all the routine activities of the play, from eating to leading the milk van’s horse. They are the practical components of what Finney has aimed for with this production, to honour Thornton Wilder’s intentions “simply, sincerely and with love and care for the human condition”. See it, and be touched.