Our Town sets the bar for the fall season at Portland Center Stage.
With Our Town, directed by Rose Riordan, opening another theatre season at The Armory, Portland Center Stage demonstrates they are willing to take risks. This play by Thornton Niven Wilder breaks the laws of narrative and almost every firm rule, even in modern theatre. The third act is more like a performance to enliven a contemporary art installation, although it does much to focus a multi-dimensional narrative told in large part by The Stage Manager, the starring role, played by nationally-renowned stage actor, Shawn Fagan.
The Stage Manager is the invisible hand of time. He is the narrator. But he breaks that wall and engages with actors/characters continuously. After the play concluded — 78 years since this play was written — there was an audience divided, with a small few standing in ovation, a small few applauding with mere politeness, but most clapped with a pleasant subdued feeling.
So maybe there is no risk with Our Town after all. The play is actually tried and true, the playwright passed away forty years ago, and the likes of Paul Newman have played the role of Stage Manager as recently as 2002. Objectively speaking, there are many strong performances from a large cast of Portland’s most recognizable stage actors. It may have been experimental theatre on Broadway in 1938, but it’s not the weirdest thing this crowd has seen. I was in that middle ground, applauding from my seat, feeling critical, but my opinion doesn’t outweigh the overall impact it has on a subjective level.
Let’s take a little personal narrative to take our eyes off the play for a moment.
I hadn’t been to The Gerding Theater since the Time-Based Art festival in 2009 — the festival I was embedded in concurrent to my viewing of this play — and was pleased to remake my acquaintance there. It is one of the early, better changes to occur within industrial Northwest Portland, reopening its historic doors with fanfare in 2006. This past Saturday, I arrived with a somewhat cluttered, nervous mind, and struggled to leave my worries behind.
Inside the lobby, industrial features — or you might say “found objects” — decorate the interior, producing a magical world of the post-industrial age. Here, the objects of war that you would find in an armory have become a demonstration of contemporary green architecture. Within the main stage, a fully modern theater design and a wide open stage allows for a range of performance. I am surprised I see very little dance on this stage. That should change.
The back wall was exposed at the start of the play — piping that went every which way, with valves and other industrial smatterings for the backdrop — and was later concealed with a screen. When the play began, we had to imagine every detail beyond costume. All there was for a set were antique wooden chairs. Characters not employed sat stoic in them. Kind of ominous. Upon cue, they stood up and performed, sometimes bringing a chair. Or two ladders might be used for some scenes. To set up two family homes, they simply put the four chairs down to represent a dinner table and another four chairs in parallel.
Set in a town of roughly 2,000 residents called Grover’s Corners, we focus on two families and their son/daughter, George Gibbs and Emily Webb. The Stage Manager narrates and starts/stops scenes and acts; his role sometimes dominates the play.
This narration is interruptive, like a nudgy friend sitting next to you, giving up spoilers impulsively. Once the narrator has done that to you, there is no choice but to roll with it. You can’t yell, “why did you just tell me he’s going to die later!” Nope, it becomes a fact and you must adapt. Fortunately, there remain surprises until the end.
Mr. Webb is the town newspaper Editor, and Mr. Gibbs is… well, actually, Doctor Gibbs. They’re leaders of the community with very polite kids and wonderful wives. In 1937, these were the small town norms, although the cities where this play drew audiences were exceedingly liberal by comparison. Perhaps that is why it was a hit among the people.
George and Emily are very young and we pull for them and their feelings are discovered and bonded together. A good deal of dialogue is a character’s revelation on the meaning of life. Some of it is real talk; good old-fashioned morals. However, the subtext of most of the dialogue struggles with finding deep connection or sharing honest feelings between one another, like it’s all about shuffling along into our social paradigm.
One of this play’s greatest drawbacks from my personal experience was precisely that mundane dialogue. I found drab conversation at moments that could have burst with character development. In retrospect, that was the point. We live our lives like that. Whether you’re a stockbroker snorting cocaine from a hooker’s belly or a playwright sitting alone at your desk: life is characterized by brief departures from emotional disconnection.
The vast majority of our lives are filled with vacuous half-truths only to avoid rocking the boat, and this is what we get in the play, yet they are framed as such. The Stage Manager breaks that up for us. This is crucial. So actually the meaning is deep, timeless, and a reminder to open our hearts up. I think this is where the narrator needed to give more emotion and to help me empathize with everyone. Perhaps the director asked him to be objective with his voice.
And that cluttered, nervous mind that I arrived with, was still chewing away at itself, but the reminder to know what life is all about needed to be there, on top of my mind. I am sure I wasn’t alone in that.
Our Town runs until October 11th at The Gerding Theater. Visit the links below for more information.