Our Town -- The juxtaposition of the richness of daily life and the payoff of nonexistence has rarely been captured as enduringly as it is in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and under the direction of Raymond Bobgan, Cleveland Public Theatre mounts an enthralling interpretation that leans heavily on the illusory aspects of the story. Using a set of straight-backed wooden chairs, ghostly white makeup, and actors in early-1900s costumes, Bobgan brings the famous last-act cemetery scene forward, placing all of Wilder's prosaic small-town details, homespun humor, and romance in the grip of imminent death. That atmosphere pervades the performance, as many of the dialogue scenes are stylized, with actors making only occasional eye contact and sometimes being distracted by a passing thought or an unexpected glance. Director Bobgan's inventiveness continues in his casting, with the two fresh-faced lovers George Gibbs and Emily Webb played by seventyish Len Lieber, who captures the charming awkwardness of George, and young Chris Seibert, who is affecting as the one character we accompany through all stages of life and afterlife. Steven Hoffman also gives a finely detailed performance as Dr. Gibbs, and Dennis Sullivan finds all the humor and pathos in Mr. Webb's marriage speech to George. While the director's vision is arresting, some characterizations are a bit muted. But this is an Our Town that will bring you close to the core of the work and the sweet irony of life: We are given so many moments that we can never enjoy enough. Through May 12 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey
Passion -- Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical Passion is either a) a 110-minute love song that rarely varies in tempo or tone, or b) a lyrical exploration of the tragic yet redeeming possibilities of unrequited love. In this Beck Center production, well-staged by director Victoria Bussert, both descriptions are accurate. The story, set in 1863 Milan, involves an army captain named Giorgio who is in mid-affair with beauteous but married Clara. When he's reassigned to a new post, he and Clara continue their crush via emotional letters. But then Fosca -- the wan young niece of Giorgio's new commander -- falls for the young soldier, even though he still pines for Clara, who advises him to remain true to their adulterous liaison. The lovers' letters and most conversations are sung in Sondheim's characteristically layered and intricate compositions -- which is the good news. The bad news is that it's basically the same melancholy tune the whole way through. Still, there are moments of exceptional beauty, including one song that unveils a tender truth regarding people who love not because it is a choice, but because it is simply who they are. The strong cast is highlighted by three performers who handle this heavy vocal lifting with grace: Jodi Dominick is lustful and lively as Clara, Sandra Simon is a plain, sweet-voiced Fosca, and as Giorgio, Jared Leal manages to wrap his flexible pipes around Sondheim's score, although he doesn't quite exude the requisite stature and power. Passion may not be the best Sondheim has to offer, but it takes chances -- as does Beck Center in taking on this piece -- and that's why it deserves a look. Through May 6 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey
Roulette -- A fast round of Russian roulette is a bracing beginning for any play, but Roulette by Paul Weitz, now at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre in Akron, is too often a predictable, plodding cruise through the familiar geography of contemporary anomie. Suburban dad Jon (Ralph Cooley), your typical distant father, shares a split-level with his gin-and-tonic-slurping wife, Enid (Dede Klein), and two stereotypes, er, teenage kids with problems, son Jock (Ryan McMullen) and daughter Jenny (Nicole Davies). Their lives of not-so-quiet desperation are further rankled by the folks across the street: Steve (who's having an affair with Enid) and his happily addled wife, Virginia. Jon invites the neighbors over for dinner, Steve and Virginia get blotto and adjourn to the bathroom for a very audible quickie, followed by roulette-happy Jon's decision to bring out his gun and end it all in front of family and friends. Turns out later he just blew away part of his cranial matter, and after seven months in rehab, he's back home. But now he doesn't know who he is, morphing from waiter to casino guest to insurance agent as fast as you can say "contrived comic premise." For the remainder of the second act the other characters are left to flounder, since the central character has gone AWOL. Playwright Paul Weitz tries to plumb the depths of family malaise and redemption with this kludge, but his frequently clever writing is stuck in second gear. And that's too bad, because director Sean McConaha and the B&C players work valiantly to save this material from itself, performing with great pluck, if not unerring precision. Clearly, playwright Weitz wants the frenzied second act to end with a family reunited by its concern for brain-scrambled dad. Trouble is, interest wanes long before we get there. Through May 12 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 140 E. Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. -- Howey
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