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"Our Town" Gets Superlative Production at Broad Stage

Helen Hunt in "Our Town". Photo - Iris Schneider
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The thing about Our Town is that pretty much every theater-going adult has seen or read it multiple times, and likely has been in a production of it somewhere along the line. It's a staple of high school and community theatre, and that ubiquity unfortunately obscures the fact that the reason it gets done so much is that it's a truly great play. The new presentation at the Broad Stage, however, gives this classic its due with a smart and heartfelt production.

What people forget is how avant-garde Our Town is in many ways. Thornton Wilder considered a set to be a distraction, so the play only has a few basic props. The Stage Manager steps in and out of the play at will, tells us the future of various characters just as we meet them, and literally stage manages the production, treating the characters as if they were actors and urging them on or offstage. This production embraces that creativity and takes it further, using house lights for some of the scenes, including actual audience members in the show and offering surprises of its own.

Helen Hunt plays the Stage Manager in an interesting and effective way: she deliberately doesn't follow the folksy path previous actors have trod, instead playing it like an actual stage manager trying to get the show moving. She walks into the stage area before the crowd has finished seating, surrounded by the public--a nicely un-star move that emphasizes the primacy of the show--and her narration is a muted blend of charm and melancholy that fits the play perfectly.

Jennifer Grace captures all the qualities of Emily with equal skill, from the young girl importuning her mother to tell her she's pretty to the suddenly mature dead person reliving her twelfth birthday with a mix of wonder and loss. James McMenamin's George is initially like a lot of teenagers, slouching around with insouciant self-centeredness, but this makes his sudden earnestness in courting Emily all the more striking. The scene in which they finally connect is the highlight of the show, the two actors expert in a duet of almost missed chances and awkward salvation. Lori Myers is heartbreaking as the hard-working Mrs. Gibbs, who never realizes her dream of going to Paris, and Jeff Still does fine work as Doc Gibbs, particularly in a scene where he realizes too late he's been too hard on George.

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The changes director David Cromer has made are almost all enhancements, from the effective staging of an argument between George and Emily (their walking around and around the acting area creating tension) to the inclusion of actual audience members (which subtly implies that we are all members of our town somewhere), from a surprising reveal towards the end that the audience will either find impressive or controversial to a genius-level detail of actors actually making breakfast on stage during Emily's last visit to life, the aroma of cooking eggs filling the theatre with the suddenly deep sensation of home. My only quibble with the show is that the length of the stage and the location of the audience on three sides of it makes viewing and hearing a bit more difficult than it might be, depending on where one is seated. Overall, however, this is a memorable and thoughtful production.

"Our Town" plays at the Broad Stage through Feb. 12. Tickets are available online.