TheaterTimes.org October 2008 Review by Cristofer Gross

Rude Guerrilla

Our Town

by Thornton Wilder, directed by Sharyn Case

Rude Guerrilla • November 6-December 13 (Opened 11/7, rev’d 11/8)

Mapquest and Google Maps can show us a recent photo of virtually any place in the world, from the neighbor’s barbeque island to the mountains of Afghanistan. When we need a snapshot of where we’ve been as a nation, though, it’s time to turn to theater. Rude Guerrilla in Santa Ana has brought Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the fictional setting for Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Our Town,’ back to life in Southern California (through December 14). Sharyn Case’s unexpectedly un-pimped production for the Rudists is a clear-eyed look at America two century-turns back. Simply designed and simply delivered, the production let’s Wilder make his point -- a kid-gloved but unmistakable finger-wag at generations of audiences who inevitably squander their lives.

Three acts, two intermissions and approximately two hours and 20 minutes move easily through the story of neighboring families. Dr. and Mrs. Gibb will raise their two children alongside the two of Mr. Webb, editor of the town’s paper, and his wife. In Act II they will become in-laws as George and Emily court and marry. Act III will bring the premature death of Emily in childbirth. That event is the clasp that rounds out Wilders circle of life structure and sends Emily to join the spirit world hovering amidst the mountaintop cemetery overlooking the town. There, with the passed-on, including her mother-in-law, Emily will opt for a single-day return visit as way to say farewell. She will cut it short, however, when she sees how little the living understand of their gift.

Case’s non-Equity cast is good overall, with one very impressive performance and only a few who remain more townspeople of Orange County than Grover’s Corners. The most appealing are all in leading roles: Lloyd Botway as the Stage Manager, Karen Harris as Mrs. Webb, Lacey Pierce as Emily and Scott Barber as George.

Botway plays Wilder’s omniscient stage manager narrator with a professorial clarity. His speech about eternity is especially effecting, landing every line and message. If there’s a seen-it-all complacency to the performance, it’s a justifiable choice and remains genial enough to draw us in. Those moments where Botway lets his stage manager enjoy what he’s doing, however, are welcome accents.

Though her movie-star good looks seem a little out of place in Grover’s Corners, Harris renders a solid Mrs. Webb. And, the glamour adds some irony to her conversation-closing comment to Emily: “You’re pretty enough for all ‘normal’ purposes.” Pierce’s Emily is sympathetic, girlish and, in her work with Barber, at the bedroom windows, meeting after school, and in the ice cream parlor, are extremely touching.

Barber has six years of credits as an actor and director with Guerrilla, but ‘Our Town’ is our introduction to him. Indications from his George Gibbs are that Barber is gifted. The line between richness and overplaying was carefully monitored and virtually never overstepped. One can see that Barber is working to keep what is likely a full bag of tricks in check. Every scene is interesting yet honest and he never pulls focus from a scene partner. He appears to have both the talent and the wisdom to apply it within the "less is more" philosophy.

Wilder’s goal was to plant a theatrical marker back at the dawn of the 20th Century. He created a town that was an anomaly: “90 percent of ‘em graduating from high school settle down right here to live – even after they’ve been to college,” the stage manager explains. It was a kind of kinship that was already passing as Wilder looked back from 1938. Opportunities brought on by increasing industrialization – he makes several references to the arrival of automobiles – would soon be pulling families apart like string cheese.

His achievement was to move from the commonplace to the exquisite and divine. The Stage Manager is quick to point out Grover’s many churches, an indication of a multi-denominational culture. Ironically, the Stage Manager does not mention God, but talks instead of nature, and mankind. It’s left to little Rebecca, George’s sister, to reference a deity when she describes how another kid used "The Mind of God" in addressing an envelope. It’s one more way Wilder hopes to get his viewers to take personal responsibility.

Case and her team have brought a story about home to our home. If it employs actors who sometimes remind us that they are more our neighbors than those of the Gibbs and Webbs, maybe that’s just as well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Rude Guerrilla offers a fairly conventional 'Our Town' Review: The
'in-your-face' theater troupe colors Thornton Wilder's 1938 drama within the
lines. By ERIC MARCHESE
Special to the Register


Considering its decade-long history that has largely fulfilled its mission
of presenting "in your face" theater, one can only wonder what Rude
Guerrilla Theatre Company would do with a Pulitzer Prize-winning American
classic like "Our Town."

Thornton Wilder's 1938 play about life in a small New England town during
the first decade of the 20th century broke ground by foregoing such
conventions as scenery and props, presenting the characters as actors in a
play narrated by a character known as the "Stage Manager."

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players" would
apply here, lending "Our Town" the universality Wilder intended. Yet, while
innovative 70 years ago, Wilder's conceits have since been imitated by
countless playwrights.

It's therefore surprising to report that Rude G's staging is fairly
conventional in every respect. Director Sharyn Case has wisely chosen to
allow the piece to speak for itself.

Yet, while "Our Town" still speaks volumes, a testament to its author's
understanding of the human condition, Case and company might have found
various ways to offer a more innovative staging. However small, these could
have enhanced what is an otherwise competent but by no means superior
staging.

In Lloyd Botway we have a nearly ideal Stage Manager. With his graying beard
and sympathetic presence, Botway fulfills his character's purpose of
expressing Wilder's deep understanding of the many poetic ironies of
humanity. Peering out from behind his eyeglasses, puffing on his
ever-present pipe, a sober yet personable Botway controls the action,
showing us the daily lives of the townsfolk of Grover's Corners, N.H.

In Scott Barber and Lacey Pierce, we're given a study in contrasts. Barber
delivers a George Gibbs who would, a century later, be said to have
attention-deficit disorder – a teen who dreams of a life consumed by
baseball. His voice cracking like a teen Michael J. Fox and such mannerisms
as chewing his fingernails completes the portrait.

The tall, willowy Pierce aptly portrays Emily Webb as George's best friend,
a straight-A student who, perhaps like Wilder himself, understands the
meaning of the world's greatest literature and poetry. She's the only "Our
Town" figure with both a fine mind and a big heart, lending her premature
death in the tear-jerking third act an emotional jolt so at odds with the
idyllic mood preceding it.

While Barber digs deep to summon his characterization, Pierce achieves hers
through nearly rote line readings. Her Emily is a kind, pleasing soul, to be
sure – but an actor who matches Barber line for line and scene for scene
she's not.

Gregory Cohen and Sally Leonard's Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs offer fully fleshed-out
characterizations – Cohen the careworn small-town physician, Leonard the
uncomplaining spouse who toils round the clock, her dream of visiting Paris
remaining just that.

Less distinctive yet no less wholesome are Karen Harris and Frank Javier
Aranda as Emily's equally hard-working housewife mom and small-town
newspaper editor dad.

Sean Engard creates a trio of distinctive characters: a comically studious
history professor, a kind, even-tempered town constable, and a rowdy teen at
George and Emily's wedding. The remainder of Case's ensemble succeeds too
well at disappearing into their roles.

In penning "Our Town," Wilder chose a setting he (and the Stage Manager)
could control, the small town's denizens poised to address the dizzying
future shock the 20th century would hold for them. Even a staging such as
this, capable rather than superlative, delivers his message loud and clear –
that life's infinite number of seemingly insignificant details are what give
it form, shape and deeper meaning.

This production's sole innovation is the presence of the cast on stage prior
to the opening curtain and between acts – the audience's peek behind the
scenes, as Botway addresses the actors by their first names in what is meant
to be a rehearsal of "Our Town."

The technique is striking for the fact that it stands alone. Had Case
provided more musical underscoring than what she has here, worked with
lighting designer Peggy Nielson to create notable effects, and shored up her
cast with a more consistent talent level, she might have created a truly
Rude G.-style "Our Town" – something for the ages.
Freelance writer Eric Marchese has covered entertainment for the Register
since 1984.

Backstage West - Reviewed by Eric Marchese

Thornton Wilder's great American classic has always been a good ensemble piece that benefits from effectively understated acting. In her staging, Sharyn Case eschews the kind of in-your-face devices typical of most Rude Guerrilla productions in favor of a showcase for her actors; and, because of the strength of her cast, the strategy works. Of the adult members of the cast, Gregory Cohen, Sally Leonard, Karen Harris, and Frank Javier Aranda form the staging's foundation with their portrayals of the Gibbs and the Webbs. Cohen and Leonard offer particular nuance as Dr. Gibbs, devoted to his work, and his wife, who literally works herself to death. As the focal characters of George Gibbs and Emily Webb, Scott Barber and Lacey Pierce are, like the foursome portraying their parents, convincingly wholesome and without any vices or major flaws. Both are believable as teens dreaming of life beyond high school — Barber showing George's distaste for his studies, short attention span, nervous energy (he chews his fingernails), and passion for baseball; Pierce limning an inquisitive, romantic girl who loves school, on the verge of growing into a young lady who will be the model wife and mother. Together, this duo works magic with Wilder's text, whether their characters are studying by moonlight or baring their souls over an ice-cream soda. Case gets nicely varied work from Sean Engard in a variety of roles, ranging from the affable town constable to an absent-minded history professor. But her strongest performer is Lloyd Botway as the Stage Manager, holding Wilder's story and characters together while making real the small town on the cusp of the 20th century's rapid and dramatic changes. With his kindly, bearded face, spectacles, and pipe, Botway is a friendly, reassuring figure who, like Wilder, has a deep capacity for understanding that thousands of seemingly insignificant details are what combine to give life meaning.

Presented by and at Rude Guerrilla Theater, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Nov. 7-Dec. 13. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (714) 547-4688 or www.rudeguerrilla.org.

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