Revisiting Wilder’s enduring Our Town

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Dan Collins

In the Vagabond Players’ production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Ryan Gunning and William Meister play lovebirds Emily Webb and George Gibbs, as Josh Shoemaker (as the omniscient Stage Manager) provides added narration.
Photo by Tessa Sollway

Billed as “America’s Oldest Continuously Performing Little Theatre,” the Vagabond Players in Fells Point is celebrating its 100th season by reviving plays “that were particularly successful in the past,” so sayeth their press release.

One of these past glories is playwright Thornton Wilder’s thick slice of Americana, Our Town, which was previously produced at “Vags” in 1947 and 1968.

It’s an appropriate play for looking backward, as Our Town is set more than a century ago, in 1901 idyllic Grovers Corners, N.H. As the Stage Manager (the play’s narrator, portrayed by Josh Shoemaker) relates, there’s Main Street, Polish Town, “and some Canuck families” across the railroad tracks; Congregational, Baptist and Catholic churches, the town hall, a post office and — well, just imagine it was the New England inspiration for Andy Griffith’s southern town of Mayberry.

Into this pleasant Norman Rockwellish tableau comes a dominant theme of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play: time and the damages it wreaks upon us. No sooner does Kathy Foit Sewell’s Mrs. Gibbs appear on stage than the narrator reveals how she will die of pneumonia in a few years time.

And when 11-year-old paper boy, Joe Crowell, Jr. (Samuel Dye) presents Doc Gibbs (Chip Meister) his copy of the daily news, we are informed how Joe earn scholarships and graduates head of his class. “But the war broke out and he died in France. All that education for nothing.”

Though written in 1938, there is much about Our Town that fits well into today’s sensibilities. The play is divided into three acts: “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Death and Eternity.”

In the third, Wilder never speaks of Heaven or Hell or even God, but a more New Age notion of spirits “weaning themselves from earth,” burning away their connections to the physical world in preparation for moving to a new level of existence.

A family affair

At the core of Our Town are the Gibbs and Webb families — particularly burgeoning lovers Emily Webb (Ryan Gunning) and George Gibbs (William Meister), who present a wonderful picture of innocence and young love in an age of horse-drawn milk carts and strawberry phosphates.

Mark Scharf as Editor Webb and Chip Meister as Doc Gibbs offer touching portrayals of fatherhood, as the Doc comically maneuvers George into relieving his mother of the chore of chopping wood, and Scharf offers words of father-in-law-ly wisdom to his soon-to-be-son-in-law on his wedding day.

Sewell and Carol DeLisle as mothers Gibbs and Webb, respectively, remind us a bit of Griffith’s Aunt Bea, dutifully shelling peas and making meals, serving as the living caulk that holds each household together. But there are moments when we are allowed insights into each woman’s dreams and past glories — whether that’s being hailed the most beautiful girl in town or pining away for a trip to Paris.

Our Town is a play about family, and this particular production is certainly a family affair as Doc Gibbs and son George are real life father and son, Chip and William Meister. Similarly, Constable Warren is played by Brian Gunning, father of actress Ryan Gunning.

While one might argue that biological overlap might be more likely in a local, community production of a three-act play requiring 17 actors, the knowledge certainly adds to the tenor of this show, which has so much to do with the ties that bind — parent to child, spouse to spouse, community to town, life to death.

Conjuring a timeless town

Our Town is, by Wilder’s own staging, a minimalist play when it comes to scenery and props. Little is called for — or needed, given the powerful acting abilities of this stellar ensemble cast. Kudos to director Eric C. Stein and production stage manager Angela Stein (yes, they are married) for turning a couple of ladders and trellises into the neighboring home and gardens of the Gibbs and Webb families.

Sound effects provide everything from the wail of the 5:45 a.m. train to Boston to the whinny of the milkman’s horse. And these little touches are key, because they represent “stop-and-smell-the-roses” moments, which are another theme of a play which is truly a work of art — simple on the surface, but complex beneath.

As Emily declares with shock and dismay, “Oh, Earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

And the answer comes from town drunk and organist, Simon Stimson (played by Howard Berkowitz who, by the way, has one of the play’s more comical moments, attempting to solicit the best out of the church choir).

As Stimson tells us from the other world, “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another.” 

If the setting and characters of Our Town remind us of Mayberry, it’s a Mayberry of both Frank Capra and David Lynch. There’s brilliance and beauty, darkness and madness. In other words, it’s human, and about as real as life portrayed on a stage can get.

Our Towncontinues weekends through Feb. 7 at Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, at the foot of historic Fells Point. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for all on Fridays; $20 for general admission and $17 for seniors on Saturdays and Sundays. There will be a special $10 Thursdays-on-Broadway! Performance on Feb. 4.

For more information, visit www.vagabondplayers.org or call (410) 563-9135.