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by Allan Appel | Sep 19, 2013 8:54 am
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater
You walk by a basket of sepia photographs with their corners upturned, past racks of vintage clothing, furniture, and artifacts perfect for the era of the play.
Only the spirit of evanescence they evoke.
The show, which will mark the 75th anniversary of the landmark play by local great Thornton Wilder, will be performed Sept 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, and 28, all at 8 p.m.
The peripatetic company often looks for site-specific locales for its performances, such as the staging in 2010 of David Mamet’s real estate send-up Glengary Glen Ross in the elegant former Wachovia Bank building at Church and Crown.
In this case, though, he ensemble’s director Steve Scarpa said he couldn’t take credit for Our Town’s compelling setting.
It was a serendipitous find made, made especially easy to work in by the generosity of the building’s owners, Robert and Carol Orr.
In the theater company’s use of all the great vintage stuff at the English Building Market, less has been rendered more.
That’s in the spirit of Wilder’s pared down, scenery-free 1938 play, whose groundbreaking style [for American stages] was inspired by Wilder’s experience with the minimalism of Japanese theater.
“It’s fundamentally a play about memory and time. Without us having to do anything, a theater goer enters” the English Market space and walks through all the great stuff to an unadorned concrete alcove space at the far end, “and is already placed in the mindset of these very things,” Scarpa Tuesday said at the start of a dress rehearsal for Thursday night’s opening performance.
The company uses about 20 of the Orrs’ chairs. They sit on the stage in various arrangements, some created by the “stage manager,” who is the chief character and the audience’s guide for the evening. That’s it for the scenery.
“Most of the stuff you see on stage is for sale,” said Scarpa.
“Including the actors,” quipped Peter Chenot, who plays Howie Newsome. He’s the frantically polite milkman, one of the many characters flitting in and out. They give the play its gripping spirit of the relentless passing of time and open up the lives of quiet, whimsical beauty—and desperation—the characters lead before their ultimate exits.
For everything that happens, you have to use your imagination.
Or as the stage manager says early on in explaining the set-up that explores the lives of the inhabitants of Grovers Corners, the small town we have landed in, “here’s a couple of trellises for those that feel they have to have scenery.”
If Scarpa has shaken up the vessel of Wilder’s play at all, it’s in the casting of a woman, Megan Chenot, as stage manager. Although it’s been done before—most recently with Helen Hunt in 2010 in New York—Scarpa said he selected Chenot not because of gender but because of her acting chops.
“She’s a fantastic performer. I was looking for a somewhat different feeling. She’s accessible and inviting and also smart. That’s important because you spent a lot of time with her stage manager. She’s innately charismatic. You have to not only like the stage manager but be willing to spend time with her,” he said.
That difference in feeling emerges most notably in the third section of the play, “Death and Eternity,” when the stage manager finally interacts with Emily, who, having died young, is going to heaven.
“When you do it as a man, it’s fatherly or grandfatherly,” Chenot said, referring to past classic productions in which the stage manager has been played by such dauntingly avuncular actors as Hal Holbrook or Paul Newman.
“I couldn’t pull that off,” said Chenot.
Scarpa said he thinks with Chenot as the stage manager, the feeling achieved is different, perhaps older-sisterly.
Scarpa, who has loved this play since reading it in high school, said it’s often done with too much sentimentality and too much emphasis on the young people’s romance. Wilder’s notes, which Scarpa has researched, make clear that the great unseen actor in this drama is the Grim Reaper.
The stage manager, aka as Megan Chenot, begged to differ. “I think it’s about appreciating life. My main purpose up there is to remind people to appreciate what’s going on, because it’s not going to last,” she said.
Other actors in the ensemble not mentioned above include: Kevin Smith, Sam Taubl, Deena Nicol, Josie Kulp, Spenser Long, George Kulp, Donna Glen, Erich Greene, Jim Lones, and Jesse Jo Toth.
If you like one of the chairs you see in the show, you must wait until the performance is over to buy it.
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