The juxtaposition of the richness of daily life and the surreal payoff of non-existence has always been batted around by playwrights. But few have created a work of art as enduring as Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The task for any theater company, at this point, is to bring a fresh perspective to the residents of Grover's Corners. And under the inspired direction of Raymond Bobgan, Cleveland Public Theatre mounts an enthralling interpretation that leans heavily on the illusory aspects of the story.
As the audience enters, each of the 17 cast members is in the slow process of walking onto the bare stage, centered amid four seating sections. Wearing various styles of clothing from the early 1900s, their faces dusted a ghostly white to match their wardrobe, each sits on a straight-backed wooden chair and stares at nothing in particular.
Having brought the famous last-act cemetery scene forward, Bobgan brackets the script and essentially places all of Wilder's prosaic small-town details and homespun humor and romance in the grip of imminent death. And 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.
The chairs make up the majority of set pieces (there are also two tall stepladders), as the actors carry them above their heads, spin them into position to sculpt playing spaces, and toss them back and forth. But the chairs also serve as a visual metaphor, representing the kind of solid, permanent comfort that is not accessible in a life lived in the constant onrush of time. As Emily cries in the last act, "It goes so fast!"
Director Bobgan's inventiveness continues in his casting, with the two fresh-faced lovers Emily Webb and George Gibbs played by young Chris Seibert and seventyish Len Lieber. Their interplay is delightful: Lieber captures the charming awkwardness of George, while Seibert is affecting as the one character we accompany through all stages of life and afterlife. Also, Steven Hoffman gives a finely detailed performance as Dr. Gibbs, and Dennis Sullivan finds all the humor and pathos in Mr. Webb's marriage speech to his future son-in-law.
While the director's vision is arresting, some characterizations are a bit muted. Simon Stimson, the drunken church choirmaster played by Daniel Taylor, never registers as a comically haunted individual. And Sheffia Randall Dooley (Mrs. Webb) and Elizabeth R. Wood (Mrs. Gibbs) don't entirely succeed in crafting sharp personas in the midst of this dreamy context.
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.