By Bridgette M. Redman
In Grover’s Corners, there isn’t much in the way of drinking, nor is there much art or culture to speak of. This social demographic snippet given to the audience in the first act is an early clue that the people inhabiting “Our Town” live in a narrow band of ordinary with no soaring heights nor despairing depths.
Rather, “Our Town” is a place of small joys, minor worries, and a day-to-day doing what one ought.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company’s staging of this Thornton Wilder classic captures this ordinariness with a production that is anything but. Director Guy Sanville leads his performers in a presentation filled with an almost deceptive subtlety.
The pace is slow, relaxed and presented with an easy conversational style that could dupe the audience into thinking it is listening to Garrison Keillor. But like the Minnesota radio show, there is a serious undertone that challenges not kings, queens or great rulers, but those who walk the everyday paths of life.
Sanville deserves the greatest praise in this production for putting together an ensemble in which no one sticks out. The actors carefully avoid the highs and lows that would make any one of them more memorable than the others. In doing so, he underlines the theme of how everyone is, as Emily (Stacie Hadgikosti) observes after she has died, living in boxes, being troubled in a vague, constant way.
They have their moments when they dream of something outside of Grover’s Corners — outside of the everyday routine. No one, though, makes that break. Rhiannon Ragland and Michelle Mountain as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are almost interchangeable in their characters. While this would be a flaw in other plays, it was highly effective for this one. The stage manager, Will David Young, tells us that every day of their lives they prepare three meals, take no vacation, never have a nervous breakdown and don’t consider themselves ill-used. Is this admirable?
The play leads us to think that it is, until the third act when Wilder asks us why we go through life day after day never appreciating each other or the joys that can be found in every minute of the day.
All 16 members of this ensemble — one of the largest casts that The Purple Rose has ever had for a show — played their parts with subtlety and control. They were willing to take things slow, rest in the moments of silence, and stay perfectly within a narrow band. Young’s accent was sometimes too thick, blurring the words and reminding a Midwestern audience that this town was elsewhere. Other accents were present, but in keeping with the subtle theme of the rest of the production.
Daniel Walker’s lighting was mood-setting from start to finish. Both design and execution were flawless and symbolic, adding yet another layer of metaphor to an already complex play. The lighting of the final scene was particularly poignant — from the stars slowly filling the sky to the shaped spotlights on passive faces of the dead.
In a play with little laughter and tears that shimmered in the eyes more often than actually falling, the actors manage to evoke great emotion from an otherwise silent audience. When the lights came up, it was to reveal many tears on the faces of the audience members who were now left to question whether they could, like those who spoke from the grave, connect with the eternal or, like the poets and saints mentioned by the stage manager, find a way to appreciate the joys of life in every minute of every day.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through May 29. $20-$38. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org