Contributed photo David Underhill (as George Gibbs) and Hailey Conner (as Emily Webb) in Peninsula Productions’ Our Town, playing at the Centennial Park ‘black box’ theatre until Aug. 24.

REVIEW: Our Town a lesson in the power of theatre

Peninsula Productions breathes new life into Thornton Wilder classic

Thornton Wilder’s drama Our Town is a sweetly nostalgic – if ultimately melancholy – rumination on the impermanent, transitory nature of human experience.

At a time in the late 1930s when the WPA Federal Theatre Program, and such artists as Orson Welles and Marc Blitzstein, had engineered a radical rethink of American theatre outside the mainstream, the erudite, well-travelled Wilder – heavily influenced by the minimalist theatre traditions of China and Japan – was staging his own quiet revolution against the prevailing scenic realism of the day.

With his deliberately folksy Our Town – a Pulitzer Prize-winner – he set out to adapt those ideas to a slice of Americana, showing it was entirely possible to evoke all the emotional and sensory colours of small town life in New Hampshire in the early 1900s with only good acting and the most rudimentary of props and settings.

Wilder’s achievement gains new life, currently, in the hands of Peninsula Productions associate artistic director Rebecca Walters and a young and versatile cast.

Their version – now playing at the company’s newly-revamped ‘black box’ space next to the arena at White Rock’s Centennial Park (14600 North Bluff Rd.) – stands as a compelling, must-see object lesson in the power of theatre to tap directly into the audience’s imagination.

It’s a feat that’s accomplished primarily on belief, or, rather, the suspension of disbelief – and the simple principle that if the actors buy into the reality of what they’re doing, so will the audience.

And, as the cast of eight – playing more than 20 speaking roles – ably demonstrate, the audience is more than willing to go there, even laughing along with those deliberately humorous moments when players are called on to make sudden and dramatic shifts of age and gender.

This is the kind of show that one wishes more community theatre enthusiasts would see, if only to learn that there are other avenues to experiment with, outside of the safety zone of realistic ‘box’ sets and a predictable diet of farces and thrillers.

In the key role of the omniscient stage manager, Michelle Morris takes on a daunting responsibility – it’s on her shoulders to set both scene and mood, at virtually every step. It’s something the eminently capable Morris accomplishes gently but very surely, quickly establishing a friendly rapport with the audience that serves the play admirably.

Walters has drawn sympathetic and often inspired moments from all of her cast, but the two most moving portrayals come courtesy of Colleen Byberg, as Mrs. Gibbs – who asks little more from her small-town life than a chance to fulfil her dream of travelling to Paris – and Hailey Conner, as the ingenue, Emily Webb.

Byberg is pitch-perfect throughout, creating a nuanced portrait of a woman of those unforgiving, pre-suffrage times with economy and thorough understanding, minus any histrionic artifice.

Conner’s performance is equally true, whether capturing the awkwardness of adolescence or experiencing the blossoming of young love (and she also has a funny interlude in which she transforms into wordy historian Professor Willard).

She’s well matched by David Underhill’s George Gibbs, splendidly suggesting the transition from clumsy, overgrown boy to a young man determined to take on the responsibilities of adulthood.

And, like the other actors, Conner and Underhill don’t neglect the all-important mime aspects of the performance as an anchor for the emotional truth of the piece – when they sit at an improvised drugstore counter confessing their feelings for one another, you can almost taste the ice cream sodas they’re sipping.

In this context, the performance of Ryan Kniel is also commendable – he not only delivers amiable sketches of various townspeople, including milkman Howie Newsome, but also manages to convince, through body language alone, that he is leading the horse and cart around with him.

Damion LeClair, while perhaps playing a little broadly for such an intimate space, helps the play along by being so thoroughly and amusingly invested in all his roles, whether playing the dictatorial, but loving, Doctor Gibbs, or suddenly switching to Gibbs’ fidgety daughter Rebecca (with only the addition of a hair ribbon), or depicting the laconic attitude of policeman Constable Warren.

Katie Voravong also proves her versatility as she morphs from Emily’s no-nonsense mother, to alcoholic church choir director Simon Stimson, and a couple of brothers who deliver the newspaper – as well as playing piano and serving as the show’s musical director.

Elliott Wesley, as Emily’s father, the matter-of-fact newspaper editor, has a particularly amusing scene as he offers his advice on matrimony to a nervous George, and provokes chuckles as, with addition of a bonnet, he becomes the gossipy Mrs. Soames.

The show also benefits from Matthew Bissett’s supportive lighting design and the costumes, by Elliott Roberts and LeClair, manage to evoke the time period with only a couple of questionable choices.

Our Town continues until Aug. 24. For tickets and information, visit peninsulaproductions.org

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