THEATER REVIEW: Cygnet shines a blinding light on “Our Town”

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” winner of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, has been called the best American play ever written by no less than playwright Edward Albee.

There are things I love about this play – the innovations (for its time) of using no fixed set, but rather an empty stage, and for doing away with other time markers in an apparent reach at universality.

But I’ll admit that “Our Town” isn’t a favorite of mine – it always strikes me as too much talk, not enough action, and I’ve never been fond of the preachy third act.

Cygnet Theatre, under the direction of Sean Murray, presents a competent if not stirring production of this American classic through July 10 in its Old Town theater.

Murray has further updated Wilder’s innovations with colorblind and gender blind casting. His best move was to cast Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson as the Stage Manager, who narrates the story.

Thompson makes the delicate balance between telling the story and involving the audience look easy – but then, this woman made a magnificent Othello several years ago, and I am convinced she can do anything.

The play takes place in the fictitious town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, (population 2642, after the birth of twins). Life here is slow (emphasized in this production) and of another time, demonstrated by the arrival of milkman Howie Newsome (Eddie Yaroch) and his (unseen) steed delivering dairy products.

In the absence of a traditional set or the usual props, the actors mime actions like shelling peas, throwing a football or petting Howie’s horse – a charming and unusual approach.

Life is quiet, but not always happy. Mrs. Gibbs (Robin Christ), the doctor’s wife, can’t get her husband (Keith Jefferson) to slow down, nor does he share her dream of visiting Paris.

Church choir director Simon Stimson (Tom Stephenson) turns to the bottle to drown his frustration with this small-town life. Some have suggested that Stimson may be a stand-in for Wilder himself.

But the plot centers around two high school kids: football hero George Gibbs (Francis Gercke) and Emily Webb (Jo Anne Glover), daughter of the editor of the local paper. Both charmingly play awkward, coltish teens, and their scenes together – talking across the street from their respective upstairs bedroom windows, represented by standing on ladders, or sitting in the local soda shop – really are lovely.

The actors – and many of the city’s finest are here, including Jim Chovick, Jason Connors, Tom Stephenson, Eddie Yaroch, Cashae Monya, Dale Morris, Yolanda Franklin, Sherri Allen and others – do a universally fine job of portraying their characters.

“Our Town” is a long play, not helped by long pauses and a third-act delay that made it seem the act would never begin. Worse, Michelle Caron’s lighting brings a blinding white backlight projected into the audience, making it nearly impossible to watch.

It is also, despite Wilder’s stated intent, both preachy and time-stamped and reflective of a time that no longer exists. And all the blind casting and attempted lack of time clues can’t change that.

The details

“Our Town” plays through July 10 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town.

Wednesday & Thursday 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

For tickets, call (619) 337-1525 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.