The Playhouse last staged Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" in 2010. Thursday night, a new production of the classic American play opened at the NorShor Theatre, and I think American society must have advanced at least a quarter-century in those eight years.
"Our Town" requires a mostly bare stage and a minimum of props. Curtis Philip's scenic design is elegantly simple: wood flooring and paneling. Mrs. Gibbs (Pat Isbell) and Mrs. Webb (Emily Parr) mime making two different breakfasts, all as mere background action.
This play is filled with gentle humor and simple truths, evoking murmurs of recognition throughout the evening from the attentive audience.
Tom Isbell returns to perform as the Stage Manager, playing it a bit more broadly this time around because his measured cadences and earnest voice needs to reach the upper reaches of the balcony. His words have the ring of truth and resonate with the audience.
The Stage Manager is the soul of this play, while the two youngsters, baseball playing George Gibbs (Luke Harger) and Emily Webb (Rachel Williams), the original girl next door, are its heart, moving from awkwardness to sweetness to sorrow.
The evening is a treasure trove of little moments from the characters.
Neighborly Howie Newsome (Ryan Richardson) delivering milk and cream, Dr. Gibbs (Michael Kraklio) and his wife bumping shoulders, blustery Professor Willard (Jack Starr), Simon Stimson (Greg J. Anderson) suffering in silence, Mrs. Soames (Julie Ahasay) chatting away at us during the wedding, and the mask of pain on the face of Mr. Webb (Justin Peck) at the funeral.
The key aspect of Jeff Brown's lighting design are the shadows of frames and foliage cast by unseen windows and trees, although patrons in the balcony have the better bird's eye view of his handiwork. (This production uses the balcony almost as much as Romeo and Juliet.)
Director Sean W. Byrd chooses to manifest the realism of Emily reliving her 12th birthday by materializing the Webb kitchen on stage. This was an effective move, but the removal of everything threatens to disrupt the moment's mood. Fortunately, Byrd includes a grace note, when mother and daughter briefly make eye contact.
"Our Town" speaks of a simpler time, when the milkman showed up at your door with cow in hand, the commitment to write a letter and mail it to somebody was a really big deal, and 25 cents was a fortune. Locking your door was a bizarre notion, and the "auto-mobile" was the harbinger of things to come.
The final scene, with the dead sitting in the graveyard, beyond the cares and woes of life, is the great elegy of the American theater.
At one point, the Stage Manager alludes to all the "layers and layers of nonsense," and it is painfully obvious how today we are light years beyond Wilder's time.
However, I would like to believe that beneath all of the nonsense afflicting us today, the core of the American character that Wilder celebrates can still be found.
But ultimately, "Our Town" is a testament to the bedrock of America.
If you go
What: "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder
Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 2 and 2 p.m. June 3.
Tickets: Available at www.duluthplayhouse.org