How does a guy who packs his theater with sold-out, off-the-wall productions like Psycho Beach Party and Texas Chainsaw Musical dare to mess with what seems like a winning formula? Why, for instance, even consider trotting out a chestnut like Of Mice and Men or 12 Angry Men when advance sales for shows like Debby Does Dallas: the Musical are breaking his box office records?
Another artistic director might consider it risky business to tarnish his theater's trendy identity with more traditional fare, especially with a growing audience that's eager to pony up for the edgier stuff. But not Patrick Ciamacco. He seems equally passionate and possibly even more capable when directing a classic such as his current production of Our Town.
Even more daring is the way Mr. C serves up this famous American classic in all its stripped-down splendor, giving our imaginations only the most essential nudges to recreate Grover's Corners: a mere hint of costumes, a set that's nearly as non-existent as the multiple props created out of thin air by the actors' unaffected gestures, and a judicious use of ambient sound cues, all of which add to the seamlessness of the play's shifts in time and place over a 14-year period. As a bonus, the unaccompanied vocals of the church choir (under the musical direction of Matt Dolan) are beautifully timed, straightforward and moving.
Written in the late 1930s, Our Town is one of those scripts high schools often latch onto because of its large cast and bare-bones staging. It never threatens to blow the theater department's fall budget. But as a play, Our Town is deceptively simple, and its complexities often get lost in the hands of inexperienced actors. The text is layered with some of playwright Thornton Wilder's most mature, challenging, provocative, and at times brutally honest ideas. But thanks to Ciamacco's direction and the equally unfussy performances of this cast, the text is allowed to breathe and simply be the real star of this show.
While some of the actors seem more skilled than others, this is a unified effort and all the players, from youngest to oldest, seem to be of one mind. As the all-knowing but oh-so-likable Stage Manager, Darius Stubbs never misses a chance to connect with his audience, giving all equal benefit of the doubt with his sincere "y'know what I mean?" His are the most powerfully landed, memorable moments, each rich with depth and understanding and spoken by someone who's clearly come by his wisdom first hand.
Equally moving performances are handed in by Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, (John Polk and Laura Starnik) who manage to make the early 1900's more authentic than quaint and marriage more meaningful than ever. Polk's understated warmth as a father and Starnik's ability to let us see her emotional struggles through her outward maternal resolve lend real gravitas to their scenes.
Perren Hedderson as their son, George Gibbs, and Becca Frick as the love of his life, Emily Webb, both find their way into the hearts and minds of young men and women at the turn of the century, making their roles both relevant and fully dimensional. They never stray into a Little House on the Prairie cuteness as so many Georges and Emilys are tempted to do. Hedderson is especially gifted when it comes to sharing his unencumbered openness and honesty on stage.
As the younger Webb and Gibbs siblings, both Makenna Weyburne and Joseph Daso share some very mature and meaningful work. Nate Summers, in the somewhat thankless role of Howie Newsome, lends his energy and charm to the rich landscape of Grover's Corners, as do several others.
What a gift Blank Canvas is giving us, to feel we're being trusted to sit in the dark, take it all in and "get it" on our own ... without needing special effects or unnecessary theatrical contrivances to explain it or keep us entertained.
If you're unfamiliar with Our Town, this is the perfect chance to see it as it was meant to be seen. If you feel you've seen it often enough, you might be short-changing yourself of a truly meaningful evening of theater.
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