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The Theatrical Outfit production of "Our Town."
The Metropolitan Arts Fund has grants available for arts groups hit financially by the Covid-19 pandemic, and those who had to cancel performances. (Photo by Casey Gardner)

Review: Classic “Our Town,” resonant at Theatrical Outfit, still has much to teach us

There’s a spiritual nature to Our Town. You can see it in the way the actors carry themselves. You can feel it in the electricity that dances through the hall as the performance moves toward its curtain call.

“This is the way we were,” the Stage Manager (Mary Lynn Owen) tells us early on, “in our growing-up, in our marrying, in our doctoring, in our living and in our dying.”

Mary Lynn Owen, quietly, certifiably in charge as the Stage Manager

Sounds simple, yes? It’s anything but. Our Town is nothing less than the eternal story of humanity, something that, in eons of existence, we’ve never really quite put our fingers on. That’s what makes Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 masterpiece so elusive, so eloquent and, ultimately, so moving.

Theatrical Outfit makes an inspiring choice in opening its 43rd season with this certifiable American classic. It does so economically — with 10 actors instead of the usual 23, and with a twist — casting a female actor as the Stage Manager, a historically male role. (Note that Our Town, which runs through September 29, will be joined in repertory by The Laramie Project, previewing September 10–12 and opening September 13.)

Our Town, directed by David Crowe (Silent Sky), and The Laramie Project, being directed by Clifton Guterman, share the same acting company, an exercise in stamina and flexibility that Atlanta audiences haven’t enjoyed since the 2014 demise of Georgia Shakespeare. What fun! Thankfully, the company is not peopled only by Caucasians.

With the exception of Our Town‘s Stage Manager, the people of Grover’s Corners (costumes by Sydney Roberts) wear monochromatic dresses, shirts and long and short pants in shades of beige that allow them to pick up a shawl, a vest, a hat or jacket to differentiate between bit parts and larger roles. The scenic design (by Stephanie Busing) is also single-toned, with a nondescript, upstage edifice filled largely by a scrim or back cloth. This allows the cast of 10 to look like many more in scenes that call for bigger gatherings. Only the graveyard scene feels underpopulated.

High schoolers George Gibbs (Shaun MacLean) and Emily Webb (Maggie Birgel) have a pivotal conversation over ice cream sodas.

Regardless of locale (church, streetscape, inside a home), this is Owen’s domain. She nudges the action forward as need be but stops to edify when she deems it suitable. Owen — an actor, playwright and multiple Suzi Bass award-winner probably best known for Knead (Alliance Theatre), Wit (Aurora Theatre), The Little Foxes (Theatre in the Square), Dividing the Estate (Theatrical Outfit) and Kimberly Akimbo at Actor’s Express, a particular favorite — creates a matter-of-fact Stage Manager with a wry sense of humor. Note the stink eye she shoots Editor Webb when he mentions how women vote “indirect” (meaning, essentially, not at all).

The actors are uniformly fine, with many familiar faces among them, but several are particularly eye-opening: Maggie Birgel as Emily Webb, who must grow assuredly from fussy schoolgirl to smitten teenager to wife and mother with gravitas we don’t see coming; Shaun MacLean as George Gibbs, alternately callow, ebullient and devastating as he faces life’s biggest challenges; Jayson Warner Smith (back from film after a sizable absence) as Editor Webb, a stoic, no-nonsense New Englander who finds it easier to comfort the town drunk (“Everybody has a right to their own troubles”) than to sprinkle calm wisdom on his soon-to-be son-in-law; Michael Hanson, haunting as Simon Stimson, the soft-spoken and deeply troubled alcoholic choirmaster; and Asia Howard, who crafts complete individuals in roles of disparate ages and callings — paperboy Joe Crowell, little sister Rebecca Gibbs and the gossipy, wedding-loving chorister Mrs. Soames.

Simon Stimson (Michael Hanson, left) and Editor Webb (Jayson Warner Smith) share a moment on the quiet, late-night streets of Grover’s Corners.

It makes no difference how recently you’ve visited Wilder’s fictional New Hampshire hamlet, or even how often. Each trip is a singular one, resonating in different ways and surprising at different moments. The more life experience you have, of course, the more profound your viewing is likely to be.

Yes, Our Town is universal. Yes, it’s timeless. And this staging, magical on opening night, will no doubt deepen and cut even closer to the heart as its actors’ bones settle and knit.

“Does any human being ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” Emily asks in Act III.

No, Emily, we never do. But spending a few hours with you and Thornton Wilder reminds us that we should, at least, try.