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On Theater: A new, vital 'Our Town'

November 04, 2010|By Tom Titus
  • Danae Hayes, Preston Butler III, and Mitch Burke in "Our Town."
Danae Hayes, Preston Butler III, and Mitch Burke in "Our… (Photo by Susie Sprinkel…)

Can a play written in 1938 about rural life in the early 20th century — and staged by virtually every high school and collegiate drama department ever since — speak to 21st century audiences with relevancy and immediacy?

If the play is Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which earned him one of his three Pulitzer Prizes, and the producing entity is Costa Mesa's Vanguard University, the answer is an unqualified "yes." No matter how many times you've seen it, you should avail yourself of the opportunity of experiencing it in an entirely new light before the production closes Sunday.

This show not only clutches at the heart, but also shows off the old classic in a new light. Director Susan K. Berkompas has cast two performers in the role of the stage manager — one male, one female — and they alternately offer cryptic comments about life in the fictional town of Grovers Corners, N.H., circa 1903-13.

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That's not the biggest surprise, however. In Berkompas' concept, the key character of Emily Webb — the young girl who marries the boy next door and then dies in childbirth — is blind. No reference is made to her sightlessness, but her condition is obvious, and heart-rending.

The first two acts are presented just as Wilder envisioned them, with zero hand props and the stage business (preparing meals, washing hands, etc.) performed in pantomime. However, in the third act, when Emily makes her one-time-only return to re-experience her 12th birthday, props are abundant, the smell of freshly cooked pancakes pervades — and Emily sees it all.

Berkompas has taken one line of the play, Emily's post-mortem lament about being so blind to people and events around her during her life, and structured a compelling new concept. It succeeds due in no small measure to an extraordinary cast, which for this production is condensed to nine actors, most playing multiple roles.

The demanding role of Emily is achingly rendered by Danae Hayes in the most singularly remarkable performance on the Vanguard stage this year. She is ably supported by Mitch Burke as her farmer/baseball player beau, George Gibbs.

As for the two stage managers, the robust Preston Butler III seems to relish the heavier lines while Tivoli Hudson is a pert, frisky counterpart who handles most of the comedic dialogue. Together, they mesh splendidly as they create a mental picture of a bucolic hamlet from the distant past.

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