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The beloved play OUR TOWN on stage through Sunday

THE BASICS:  OUR TOWN, the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Thornton Wilder presented by American Repertory Theater of WNY, directed by Matthew Refermat, runs only through January 13, Thursday and Friday at 8, Saturday at 5, and final show Sunday at 2 upstairs at “the 545 Artloft Space” (545 Elmwood Avenue near Utica) (983-4345) Tickets $20, students $10. Runtime: 2-1/2 hours with two intermissions.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: With the traditional elements (bare stage with the iconic wooden step ladders, very few props, and narration provided by the “Stage Manager”) we are introduced to the people of fictional small town Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, watching these folks’ “everyday lives” from 1901 to 1913, including two who become school-age sweethearts and ultimately marry –  Emily Webb and George Gibbs.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First let me say that I was surprised by the number of people I’ve spoken to who have never seen OUR TOWN. It’s a favorite of high school theater teachers because the through-line concerns high school sweethearts, so the captive audience “gets it” right away. And it’s a favorite of amateur theater groups because of the minimal staging and props and once you’ve cast the four or so principal roles, the rest are all minor “characters” so an uneven performance by any one actor won’t make or break the play.

This current production has its moments, both good and bad, but in this age of “put down your damn cell phones and engage with the world” if you have influence over any Millennials or Gen Zees, then I would take advantage of the very affordable $10 student ticket prices (only $20 general) and go.

Starring Verneice Turner as The Stage Manager, Kit Kuebler as young Emily Webb, with Kerrykate Abel as Emily’s mom Myrtle,  and Jack Horohoe as her dad Charles, Russell Holt as George Gibbs with Shayna Raichelson Zadok as his mom Julia, and Victor Morales as his dad “Doc Gibbs,” Various townspeople are portrayed by Karen Harty, Ayden Herried, Ryan Kaminski, John F Kennedy, Victor Morales, Vivian Porter and Shakora Purks.

Highlights included the follow-up to the “ice cream soda” conversation between Emily and George when the couple exits, not to the wings, but down into the audience as they slowly walk home. And the freeze frame following the wedding at the end of Act II was particularly well done. The hymn singing was spectacular and a very pleasant surprise.

If you have seen this play before, you might be surprised at what resonates differently for you this time.

If you have seen this play before, you might be surprised at what resonates differently for you this time. For example, to me, the suicide in the community was not as shocking as when I was young, but on the other hand, as I approach our 40th wedding anniversary, the advice of Mr. Webb (Jack Horohoe) to his future son-in-law, George, seemed very wise indeed:

  1. WEBB: George, I was thinking the other night of some advice my father gave me when I got married. Charles, he said, Charles, start out early showing who’s boss, he said. Best thing to do is to give an order, even if it don’t make sense; just so she’ll learn to obey. And he said: if anything about your wife irritates you…her conversation, or anything…just get up and leave the house. That’ll make it clear to her, he said. And, oh, yes! he said never, never let your wife know how much money you have, never.

GEORGE: “Well, Mr. Webb … I don’t think I could…”

  1. WEBB: So I took the opposite of my father’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since. And let that be a lesson to you, George, never to ask advice on personal matters.

There were a few problems on stage. In the script, the actors are expected to mime everyday actions, such as eating, and those scenes reminded me of childhood when my cousins would “play house” with imaginary utensils and their gestures too were mincing and miniature. It was the same here on stage and not especially believable. Nor was the scene where the women are “stringing beans” from the garden all that convincing.

And, one continuing problem is with the acoustics at the upstairs theater, aggravated during the winter by a heating unit to the audience’s left. Here, as well as in ART’s previous production of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, some of the dialogue was lost as the actors failed to project their voices. The director told me on opening night that they are working on projection, so your visit should show some improvement.

All in all, not the best OUR TOWN I’ve seen (that would have been at Chautauqua in 2015) but certainly very authentic with a reverence for the script, and, it’s just a great play.

UP NEXT: Truman Capote’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S adapted for the stage by Richard Greenberg, January 31st to February 16th, also at “the 545 Artloft Space.”

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of  someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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