Review from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, written by Scott McCrea.
FAIRBANKS — There’s a claim that not a day goes by that “Our Town” isn’t performed on some stage somewhere. Certainly believable, given the fact that Thornton Wilder’s sentimental drama is considered the quintessential chestnut of American theater, with productions performed by small town community theater groups all the way to large stage revivals, most recently with a critically acclaimed run in Santa Monica starring Helen Hunt.
The fact that it is so popular, and that most regular attendees of theater have had some experience with “Our Town” at some point, poses a challenge for community theater groups to stage something that makes their version of “Our Town” unique from the myriad other productions out there.
Is the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre version of “Our Town,” directed by Ray Parshall and currently running at the Empress Theatre, that different from others out there? On some levels, yes. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter as the production is a superb one, with outstanding performances across the board.
What makes it so captivating is the subtle audience involvement. We don’t feel like observers of “Our Town,” we feel like inhabitants. This is in part due to the stage set up, with bleachers on either side of the stage facing each other, as well as the fact that characters mingle regularly among audience members.
It also helps that the production is staged at the Empress Theater, one of my favorite theater venues in Fairbanks. Located on top of the Co-Op Diner (a local iconic and nostalgic spot of sorts), we have to immerse ourselves directly into the heart of our town — the town of Fairbanks — to see the play.
The story of “Our Town” unfolds over a series of three acts and encapsulates a variety of themes familiar to all of us at some point — love, family, death, sorrow, community and more. Guiding us through the journey is the Stage Manager, played to perfection by b.d. Rogers. There is not a better actor or actress in all of Fairbanks who could have been chosen for this essential role of the being the play’s narrator. His character is a down home and friendly one, wise and sentimental, and the type of person you would want in your town, the type of person you would want to saddle up next to at the local diner or bar and listen to him tell stories.
Though we are introduced to several residents of the town of Grover’s Corner, the key focus in the play is on the lives of two families and neighbors -— the Webbs and the Gibbses. The Webbs’ father, played by P.J. Gesin, is the editor of the local newspaper, while the Gibbses’ father, played by John Welch Moffatt, is the local doctor. Their wives, Mrs. Webb (an excellent performance by Rebecca Eddy), and Mrs. Gibbs (Marjorie Grunin) are stay-at-home moms, who toil from sun-up to sundown taking care of their household.
Tying the two families together is the unfolding relationship of the teenagers, Emily Webb (Jessie Taylor) and George Gibbs (Jack O’ Brien). They are perhaps the two characters that we end up caring for the most, and in each case, their performances were highly believable and absolutely captivating as we watch their relationship progress from being childhood friends in the first act, to love and marriage in the second, and to chilling tragedy in the third act.
The rest of the play’s characters had fairly minor roles compared to the main players above, but well-done performances are delivered by Michael Riggenbach (Simon Stinson), Susie Hackett (Mrs. Soames) and Tom Moran (Professor Willard). And as if Rogers didn’t have enough on his hands with the monologue-heavy role of Stage Manager, he takes on two additional roles as Howie Newsome and Joe Stoddard.
While FST’s last production, “The Campaign,” was chock full of eye candy, “Our Town” is about as sparse as you can get for set design, with one exception in the third act that was truly awesome (I use “awesome” because I love bacon, and will leave it at that). But that all ends up being OK, because the lack of props allows us to fully engross ourselves with the characters. The only time there was ever a distraction was through some of the moments where performers were pantomiming their actions, and at times, it wasn’t clear on what exactly they were supposed to be doing.
“Our Town” runs through Dec. 9 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Make the trek downtown and join the community. You’ll be glad you did.
For more information and tickets, contact FST at fstalaska.org or call 457-POET.