ST. PETERSBURG — Our Town is one of the most produced plays in the United States. Set in the mythical Grovers Corners at the turn of the century, Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer winning play invokes exuberant young lovers, crickets in the moonlight and a train in the distance, invoking places far away from here.
It has a ice cream shop and a Main Street, a town drunk and a spinster who cries at weddings. It is, in other words, ready made for any theater that wants to serve up a wistful slice of small-town Americana. That wouldn't be a terrible way to do it, and countless productions have. A brilliant script helps them get away with it; Wilder's writing resonates with depth right down to the town's recent cemetery inhabitants who can still talk.
This apple-pie-with-a-touch-of-sadness approach is not one Freefall Theatre wanted to take, and we should all be thankful for that. Before the play even starts, producing artistic director Eric Davis signals his intentions by placing the cast on stage, going through the same stretching exercises most actors do before a show. They wear street clothes. The message dovetails with Wilder's bare set, revolutionary in 1938 when Our Town opened: There is no sharp line between reality and fiction. At best, we constantly mistake one for the other.
There are no clear messages in the production itself, and that too is by design. The star of the show is probably choreographer Leann Alduenda, who worked with actors individually and collectively to create a nonverbal layer of movement. Freefall's Our Town is a movement poem in three acts. This goes beyond the pantomime necessary to enact a play which, other than a few tables and chairs, has no set and almost no props.
Families go through the patterns of breakfast and dinner through days stretching into decades, a mechanical yet poetic series of rituals. Characters freeze in time. When they exit the stage, they seem to disappear.
Setting the show explicitly in a theater was Wilder's instruction. A stage manager establishes tone, gives a history lesson of the town dating back to its geological roots and narrates its evolution through time. At the core of a cast of 13 are two families, the Gibbses and the Webbs. They are cast slightly against type, interracial parents with white children, and it works. Like the rest of the town's residents, they grow old or fall in love, die of old age or prematurely. There is an innocence about them.
Standout performances include Kelly Pekar as Mrs. Gibbs and Trenell Mooring as Mrs. Webb. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb work in a tandem, neighbors in parallel roles as wives and mothers. The movement between Pekar and Mooring is just one example of what makes this play a real accomplishment. Bob Devin Jones establishes a trustworthy presence as the stage manager. In his hands, the warmth and honesty of Wilder's finest writing is well preserved. (Jones also steps in for a couple of other roles with the same assured exactitude.)
Taylor Simmons and Sarah McAvoy play the lovers, George Gibbs and Emily Webb. McAvoy, who plays the larger role, delivers a vulnerability and determination that places her squarely in the role of a teenager (which she is not). Simmons does his part as the baseball-loving, lovestruck kid. Some scenes between them do seem to drag a bit, particularly toward the end of the second act. At times, the writing seems not so timeless but dated at this point, overlong and trying. When that happens, the show dims from the enjoyable to the merely worthwhile.
These are, however, rough surfaces on the diamond that is Our Town, a serious production of a work that will always be relevant.
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.