There is magic afoot in Ellicott City, specifically at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park (PFI for short), often referred to simply as “The Ruins.” PFI, which once housed a girls’ boarding school, sits atop the highest hill in Ellicott City.
The magic comes in the form of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s (CSC) production of Our Town. The setting is, in fact, five or six locations in and around what is left of The Ruins – great stone walls with arched windows, interior rooms with dirt floors and sturdy wooden beams and a roofless area with remnants of walls that makes the perfect setting for Act III. The audience is led, scene by scene, to the various locations such that we can’t help but be as aware of one another as we are of the performers. It is a unique shared experience, and I suspect this is exactly what Ian Gallanar, Artistic Director for the Company and director for this particular production, had in mind. He hit the bulls-eye.
Opening night brought a cloudless night with a three-quarter moon shining down directly over the huge wall that serves as a backdrop for most of the play – the homes of the Gibbs and Webb families in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. The moon is mentioned frequently in the early scenes and, on this night it could not have been more perfect. The sound of the morning train emanating from a speaker off in the distance adds just the right touch to the dawning of a new day in Grover’s Corners. All in all, the setting and having the audience “on the move” is in complete harmony with the stark simplicity of the play itself.
Our Town is rightfully claimed as an American classic by CSC. Written by Thornton Wilder, one of America’s most original and innovative voices throughout the 20th century, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938. What Wilder wrote then struck a deeply resonant chord with audiences. That chord still rings through loud and clear today, perhaps even more so. Wilder wrote it to be performed with minimal sets and props, focusing all the attention on the story which allows the simple, yet profound themes to shine through.
Our Town raises, in a straightforward yet elegant fashion, the question as to whether we are living our lives cognizant of a divinity that lives within and all around us. In what was at the time a stunningly original third act where people dead and buried comment on the living, the question is posed: “Do those who are alive fully appreciate the miracle of human life?”
As written by Wilder and certainly as performed by CSC, Our Town is first and foremost an ensemble piece. This cast does a superb job with it – creating Grover’s Corners at the turn of the last century through gesture and pitch perfect accents, a testament to the care and attention to detail provided by director Ian Gallaner.
The Stage Manager provides background and commentary and Dave Gamble brings him to life effortlessly, from the timber and modulation of his voice to his marvelously expressive hand gestures. As the young couple, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, Noah Bird and Kelsey Painter are well matched and completely compelling. Both have captured the wonderment of their youth as well as the inevitable growing pains that accompany the journey to adulthood.
The rest of the cast is every bit as good as Gamble, Bird and Painter. Particularly deserving of mention are Lesley Malin, CSC’s Managing Director, who does a delightful job as Mrs. Webb and Jenny Leopold, CSC’s Development Director, who is equally delightful as Mrs.Gibbs. Also turning in solidly believable performances are Michael P. Sullivan as Dr. Gibbs, Ron Heneghan as Mr. Webb and Joan Crooks as the town gossip, Mrs.Soames.
The only fault I could find with this uniformly superb production is a brief moment where George responds a little too quickly to a burst of affection from Emily. But this is a small thing, in a production full of great things.
Thankfully, CSC has garnered an impressive amount of support for their company and we can expect the magic to continue.
It takes some time to get to Ellicott City from inside the beltway, and The Ruins are not particularly easy to find if you haven’t been there before. But it’s worth whatever you have to do to get out and see Our Town. Oh and don’t forget to bring a flashlight and warm clothes. Ay yuh, it’s autumn in Grovuh’s Cornahs and it’s gettin’ pretty cool in the ev’nins.
Our Town runs thru Oct 30, 2011 at PFI Historic Park, 3655 Church Road, Ellicott City, Maryland.
Details and tickets
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Ian Gallanar
Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Larry Bangs
Running time: Two hours and forty-five minutes including two 10 minute intermissions