Review: ‘Our Town’ at Theatre Aspen
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Our Town,’ presented by Theatre Aspen
Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park
When: Through Aug. 4
How much: $30-$110
Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office; theatreaspen.org
More info: The theater company will donate 20 percent of ticket sales from performances of “Our Town” from July 23 through 26 to the Community to Community Disaster Relief Fund, overseen by the Aspen Community Foundation to benefit those effected by the Lake Christine Fire.
You may think of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” as a folksy and old-fashioned bit of nostalgia, worn thin from eight decades of productions in schools and professional theaters. But Theatre Aspen’s intimate new staging will make you think again.
The play, which opened Friday and runs through Aug. 4 at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park, is a call to take notice of the beauty in small and everyday things — an impassioned appeal for what, these days, faddists are calling “mindfulness.”
This portrait of life in the sleepy New Hampshire village of Grover’s Corners in the early 20th century is a warm plate of theatrical comfort food, yes, but it’s also a formally experimental and forthrightly philosophical work. It’s a people’s history of small town life, showing us, in the Stage Manager’s words, “the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
This production packs a wallop as it moves into the dying part. Its dark and sorrowful final act mourns not the actual dead in the town cemetery, but the distracted way the living waste their time above ground.
Emily Gibbs, who we’ve seen grow from precocious young girl to blushing bride to the grave — and who is played with an acute and moving sensitivity by Samantha Bruce — brings it home in her bracingly honest third-act monologue, as she cries: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”
Emily grows up alongside and falls in love with George Gibbs, played with a winning sweetness by Theatre Aspen apprentice Blake Bojewski. This talented pair of young actors warm the heart through their onstage courtship, including a lovely soda shop date scene. And Bojewski, in his wedding morning talk with his future father-in-law Mr. Webb — brought to life with winning crankiness by Bill Bateman — is a comic highlight of the show.
Steven Hauck — a film and stage actor recently featured in “Ocean’s 8” — plays the Stage Manager with a balance of pep and earnestness, wearing a purple suit and addressing the audience with a hint of an old-timey radio announcer’s voice. (Just one actor in the production adopts a New England accent: Jim Ballard as the speechifying Doc Gibbs.)
The production is directed by Broadway actor and director Hunter Foster, who harnesses the power of the cozy tent theater. You may wonder if the drunken church organist Simon Stinson will fall into your lap as he staggers home (he won’t, quite). Sit in the front row, and the Stage Manager may poke his finger in your chest as he explains, “In our town we like to know the facts about everybody.” Sit on the aisle and you may be called upon to perform a small speaking role.
In the Hurst, this “Our Town” is staged with stacks of furniture piled high at the rear of the stage, from which the actors — performing in period costume — put down tables and chairs for the minimal setting (“This is some scenery for those who think they need scenery,” explains the Stage Manager).
There were many empty seats in the Hurst on opening night, which may indicate a less than enthusiastic anticipation for “Our Town” at Theatre Aspen. But for local residents, watching “Our Town” in this town offers a unique pleasure and an extra meta touch in this already meta-fictional theatrical experience: as the Stage Manager delineates the small town characters of Grover’s Corners, you’re likely to recognize some of the same types from small-town Aspen sitting beside you. Thornton Wilder himself, no doubt, made the same connection during readings of the play in Aspen during his influential visit here in the summer of 1949.
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.