By Dale King
True to its promise to provide “theater to think about,” Palm Beach Dramaworks opened its 2014-2015 season this past weekend with Thornton Wilder’s unadorned but hauntingly personal play, Our Town.
The play, written in 1938, is a delight to the ears and eyes, even though Wilder decreed there be no sets or props. A fine 20-member cast of veteran players and talented newcomers does well with just an occasional chair, a wooden plank and mimed gestures.
Scenic/lighting designer Paul Black has created a weathered wooden backdrop with a stairway and supporting beams to give the actors the semblance of spatial dimension. Costume designer Robin McGee has dressed everyone in perfect turn-of-the-20th-century attire, also elegant in its simplicity.
The three-act play — with a single intermission between Acts I and II — is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., from 1901 to 1913. It depicts the everyday lives of an average community’s citizens in the early 20th century. But it’s more than a re-creation of cooking, cleaning, doctoring and schooling. Our Town celebrates both the marvel of everyday existence and the eternal essences shared by every human being.
What differentiates this play from others is the device of the Stage Manager (Colin McPhillamy), an omniscient figure in charge of the action — from telling actors when to leave the stage to announcing the start and end of each act. He brings a generally cool sense of composure to his portrayal.
The inhabitants of Grover’s Corners include some of South Florida’s best-known thespians — Elizabeth Dimon as Mrs. Gibbs and Kenneth Kay as Doc Gibbs, Patti Gardner as Mrs. Webb and Dan Leonard as Mr. Webb, John Felix as Professor Willard and Margery Lowe as Mrs. Soames — along with two newcomers in the central roles of George Gibbs (Joe Ferrarelli) and Emily Webb (Emiley Kiser).
Act I, called “Daily Life,” is pretty simple, as is Wilder’s intention. The audience does see a growing interest between George and Emily, one that will develop into courtship and marriage in Act II, “Love and Marriage,” which is devoted to virtually nothing else.
Ferrarelli and Kiser portray the young lovers with glowing radiance. Their sweet spontaneity in the scene where they sip strawberry ice cream sodas at the drugstore as they come to grips with their love produces a wealth of tender, almost intoxicating emotions.
No one, not even the characters, seems ready for Act III, “Death and Dying, Summer 1913.” It presents us all with a view of the world to come, and reinforces that sad admonition that “you can’t go home again.” Emily’s parting words ring true as she wishes that those on earth would learn to appreciate life before it ends.
In their roles as George and Emily, Ferrarelli (in his professional debut) and Kiser are exceptional and very natural. They both aptly display a grasp of emotions perfectly suited to their parts.
Dimon warmly depicts Mrs. Gibbs, and Kay’s occasionally stern demeanor is nicely juxtaposed with Dimon’s loving touch. Patti Gardner plays Mrs. Webb with a charming flair. As her husband, Dan Leonard can also be stern, but is clearly a soft touch. The way he comforts his daughter’s fears before her wedding is delightful.
Adding finely observed touches are Michael Collins as Simon Stimson, the choirmaster whose drinking problem is spoken about in whispers; Lowe as Mrs. Soames, a friend and neighbor who adds a comic touch during the wedding by commenting over and over to the audience about how beautiful it is, and Felix as Professor Willard, whose geology-obsessed cameo is a hoot.
Director J. Barry Lewis draws fine work from all the players in this now-classic work of the American stage, and Dramaworks’ production lets Wilder’s austerely presented but powerfully realized slice of life speak for its eloquent self.
Our Town runs through Nov. 9 at the Don and Ann Brown Theater, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. For tickets, call 514-4042, ext. 2, or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.