Our Town. It’s not really my town, or yours, most probably. Unless you’ve a time-machine, rather than a Toyota, parked in the garage. A device that can take you back to the turn of the 20th century (remember that one?). And small-town America. But can we relate? Can we get over the hurdle of accents to get to the heart of the play? You bet your sweet bippy. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-puller is a cogent and timely reminder that good writing transcends every other aspect of theatre. Including time. And geography. Even cultural context. I’m told there is no time, in the US, when Our Town isn’t in production, with 4000 curated in any given year. This comes as no surprise.
Iain Sinclair makes himself heroic, as director, from the first moments, when ‘stage manager’ (narrator, really) Darren Gilshenan steps into the light, where he remains, literally, for much of the play, and metaphorically for all of it. Sinclair has shown restraint, a light touch befitting the heroic nature of the work itself. He has given the script and ideas therein their very best chance of shining forth and illuminating us all.
In so doing, as well as in making inspired casting decisions, Sinclair has given his actors their best chances of shining, also. And they do. To a man. And woman. No one moreso than Gilshenan, who seems to have an innate knack for calibrating the comedic and dramatic elements flawlessly. But he has competition. Except that it’s not really competition. For Sinclair ensures each performance is complementary: setting aside the recent cut-above advent of August: Osage County, I can’t recall having seen better evidence of an ensemble approach, or more virtuous outcomes.
Maeve Dermody delivers an intensive acting course worthy of NIDA in fulfilling her role as Emily. And I do mean fulfilling. From gawky, ugly-duckling teenager, to burgeoning woman, to wife and mother cut down in her prime, she and her character are revelations both. Similarly, Robin Goldsworthy, as her anxious, loyal, young admirer and, later, doting husband, is the very picture of an adolescent struggling to be a man, or just learn what it is to be a man.
Anita Hegh shows her versatility, once again, as Mrs Webb, Emily’s stoic mother, while Susan Prior, as George’s mother, Mrs Gibbs, breathtakingly nuances of the stifled romantic, confounded by her palpable sense there must, surely, be something more (Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is? springs to mind).
The remarkable Josh Quong Tart, as Mr Webb, brings all of his considerable skills to bear, making for a credible, likable character, to whom we can all easily relate. Better yet, we’re eager to relate. His timing, expression, posture and demeanour makes him the ideal vehicle for the comic moment. In that, he’s always the man of the moment.
Christopher Stollery is the somewhat reclusive and repressed Dr Gibbs; solid, but frustrating in his inability to get close to his wife and children. We feel for him. Pity him. And, in all likelihood, find him crushingly familiar. Stollery delivers, big time: a complex, difficult, glamour-free role is played with great dignity and elegance.
Frank Whitten’s caricatured trick as Simon Stimson, the tormented eccentric with a mysterious, dark past, is a treat not to be underestimated, since it requires a degree of sensitivity not at all easily discriminated.
Indeed, the whole cast is uniform in expertise and charm: Toni Scanlan, as the teary wedding tragic, Mrs Soames; Ashleigh Cummings, as George’s annoying-but-lovable younger sister, Rebecca; Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke as Wally Webb and the sage, awake and aware paper boy.
Another amusing sidelight, or highlight, was the Foley and piano work of Steve Toulmin, whose just-so sounds were right on song and on-cue, making the deft mime of so many of the actors an absolute fancy-tickler.
After leading us down the garden-path and smack-bang into a false, deluded sense of cosy security, just as Wilder would’ve wanted it, Sinclair and cast belt it over the fence with the third act. I wouldn’t dare diminish the impact by going into the details of just how this near-death experience is evoked and effected. Suffice to say, this production is worthwhile on the strength of the final act alone.
Pip Runciman’s set design is pivotal here, as elsewhere. She has an almost cinematic vision; knowing how to create epic and painterly scenes which rival great masters across more than one medium in their halting ability to upheave one’s emotions. Nick Schlieper’s lighting design is achingly complicit. Jennifer Irwin’s period costume design is not only convincing, but applied with panache, too.
I can unhesitatingly recommend hanging out in Grover’s Corner for a couple of hours. This is the second of at least two really big-hitters for STC this season. Both with American roots. Still, I haven’t given up on a more comprehensively localised triumph before 2010 is out. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie? Oi, oi oi!
Curtain Call rating: A+
The details: Our Town plays the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House until October 30. Tickets on the STC website.