Theatre Review: Our Town

Our TownBy Manning Harris

If Director Kenny Leon has a press agent, it must be the easiest job in America.Mr. Leon’s current resume is so dazzling that it’s exhausting just to read it; he’s doing so many projects at once, and in demand for so many others (“Everyone loves Kenny these days,” reported the AJC a couple of weeks ago) that he must be the bionic man and then some.

The biggest deal on the horizon is his upcoming Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington.  I last saw Mr. Leon’s work in the Alliance Theatre’s superb 2008 production of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” In my review of that show I commented on Wilson’s language—soaring, metaphorical, earthy, and transformative.

The language in Thornton Wilder’s 72-year-old classic “Our Town,” by contrast, is distinguished by its very ordinariness, its apparent simplicity, out of which is nevertheless spun universal themes.  Mr. Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company is currently holding forth with “Our Town” at the Southwest Arts Center through March 21.  Or rather it is the play “re-imagined” by Mr. Leon, giving it a major multicultural twist:  For example, there are now two Stage Managers (the God-like narrator of the piece) one white (Daniel Thomas May) and one African-American (Ellis Eugene Williams) instead of one, as Wilder wrote it.

Mr. Leon believes art is a living thing and must be malleable enough to serve current socio-political needs.  He knows that racial issues are the most divisive force in America and is determined, most admirably, to use theatre as a healing, cohesive force.

But there are some caveats here.  For one, it’s a good thing that the Pulitzer-Prize winning “Our Town” is now, evidently, public domain; for the changes that are wrought here would never fly with the estate and publishers of the playwright.  And if you’re playing this fast and loose with a much-loved classic, you’d best be prepared for some jarring unevenness, even when you’ve got a first-rate cast.  If “Our Town” is to cast its spell, it must be a delicate, gentle play that subtly draws you in until you’re hit with an Act III catharsis on the meaning of life and living that can be emotionally overpowering, often inducing weeping.  I didn’t hear weeping on opening night; I did hear laughter (and the play certainly has many light-hearted moments).

Most people who’ve finished high school have some familiarity with “Our Town”; the setting is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire; the time is 1901; George (Eugene H. Russell IV, so well remembered by this writer for “Pure Confidence” at Theatrical Outfit) and Emily (Bethany Anne Lind, extremely talented) are high school sweethearts.  Their parents are beautifully played by Donna Biscoe, Neal Ghant, Mark Kincaid, and Jill Jane Clements.  The cast includes Willa Bost, Alexandra Jackson, Eric J. Little, William S. Murphey, and Jmichael.

If you’re a long-time fan of “Our Town,” you may not be thrilled with this production, despite Mr. Leon’s aforementioned good intentions.  I can’t quite rid myself of the feeling that the super-busy director is perhaps spreading himself a bit too thin these days.  Acts I and II are too breezy and superficial before Act III anchors us in its universal truths, but by then it’s too late.  I well remember how fine “Gem of the Ocean” was, when Mr. Leon simply concentrated on directing the play as written.  I can’t help wondering what he could do with “Our Town” if he did the same thing.

For more information about the show, visit www.truecolorstheatre.org. Contact Manning Harris at fmanningh@gmail.com.

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