University Theatre's Our Town Has a Potent Story to Tell

Emma Bahnson (Emily) and Denzel Taylor (The Stage Manager) in the UW Theatre Department's production of Our Town. 

Emma Bahnson (Emily) and Denzel Taylor (The Stage Manager) in the UW Theatre Department's production of Our Town

Halfway through the first act of Thornton Wilder’s classic drama Our Town, the Stage Manager announces that a new bank is being built in Grover’s Corners. He asks the audience what they should put in the cornerstone of the building so that people a thousand years in the future will know something about those who populate the little New Hampshire town in 1903.

And in some ways Our Town is a perfect time capsule. Playing in the Hemsley Theatre through October 29th, University Theatre’s production captures life in a small town, played out in scenes that are not unfamiliar to anyone who grew up in a rural community. Paper boys delivering the morning edition. Farmers, doctors, policemen, and newspaper men talking about the weather. Ladies gathering for choir practice at the church and the gossip sessions that follow. Families growing up side by side for generations. People living “lives of quiet desperation,” with secret hopes unrealized, important conversations left unsaid, and disappointments buried.

Under the direction of Roseann Sheridan (Artistic Director of Children’s Theater of Madison), this production mostly follows traditional conventions. Thornton Wilder famously demanded that the play be performed with “no curtain, no scenery,” and that the Stage Manager speak right to the audience, plainly acknowledging that this is a show he is putting on for our benefit.

So the actors (mostly undergraduates, some with no prior theater experience) gather around from all corners of the theater and follow the stage manager’s directions. The cast mimes entering and exiting houses, fixing dinner, weeding gardens, and going about their days, with just a few tables and chairs onstage. Sound effects are provided by the cast themselves, chiming in as chickens, train whistles, and birds. Two ubiquitous ladders are used to signify upstairs bedrooms where teenage sweethearts George and Emily lean out their windows to talk to each other at night.

When the third act departs from this convention, it is striking, and a clever way to underline Wilder’s theme.

Our Town is a quiet play with a very long lead-up to its central point. Fortunately, this production has an excellent guide—Denzel Taylor as the Stage Manager. A fifth-year senior in the First Wave Urban Arts Program, Taylor is charismatic, authoritative, and a bit mysterious as he directs our attention to the scenes unfolding. A commanding presence onstage, he converses easily with the audience and simply snaps his fingers or claps his hands to signal that the action should commence. Part magician, part omniscient narrator, he is unsentimental and determined to show us our common mistake, of taking our lives for granted.

As the naïve young couple at the center of the play, Emma Bahnson (Emily) and Tucker Penney (George) both do a fine job of communicating the awkwardness of youth, the impatience and uncertainty of young love, and the pain of being separated too soon. Penney in particular imbues his part with real honesty and heart, while avoiding the “aw-shucks” small town stereotype.

As Emily’s father and the editor of the town newspaper, David Pausch brings gravitas and texture to his character, representing the older generation. His scenes with Emily are especially touching, and his painfully awkward conversation with his future son-in-law on the morning of the wedding is one of the only truly funny moments in the play.

Costume design by MFA candidate Tia Taylor is hit and miss. The cast is clothed primarily in generic modern dress, but for some reason a few characters have an “old timey” vibe with suspenders, bow ties and plaid shirts. George’s mother is dressed in a modern skirt and blouse, but wears an apron from the 1930s. It looks like a mish-mash of styles instead of something intentional. The cast’s challenge of miming all their activities in the first two acts is also hit and miss. Some actors do a tremendous job, some sloppily walk through walls and forget how to open and close imaginary doors.

Wilder once commented that he disliked seeing productions of Our Town because “everyone performs it like it was a Christmas card.” This version mostly avoids that trap. But the stark disconnect that Emily experiences in act three, when she revisits one day in her life, is obvious only through the production elements, not the acting.

Even so, the third act’s pointed message about consciously examining our lives and truly appreciating the people around us feels modern and relevant, even though the play debuted in 1938. Perhaps in the age of cell phones, email and online personas, it’s even more important to make conscious connections with the important people in our lives.

An edited version of this review appears in the print edition of Isthmus this week.