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Classic Americana onstage at the Playhouse

by Abby Remer, The MV Times


“Our Town” is likely Thorton Wilder’s most recognized work and, as the program tells us, “is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country.” Written in 1938, perhaps its message to treasure every day including, if not especially, the unremarkable ones couldn’t be more apt to the present moment.

MJ Bruder Munafo’s production at the M.V. Playhouse conveys just this — how, as she says, “the ordinary days and human connections are what life is all about really. We all learn in our own lives that we have to do the best we can with today.”
“Our Town” is largely a streamlined play about the lives of “ordinary folk” in small town Grover’s Corners, N.H. We travel through the years with the central characters George and Emily, played by John Noble Barrack and Katherine Reid, from their adolescent friendship, to awaking love, marriage, and then its moving aftermath.

The love story plays out amid the daily goings on of Emily and George’s families (played by Shelagh Hackett, John Kooi, Elle Lash, and Paul Munafo respectively) and the town’s citizens. Wilder uses the device of breaking the fourth wall, mainly with the “stage manager,” played by John Washbrook, and occasionally other characters, addressing us directly and thus adding information to the narrative. The stage manager opens by “drawing” the town on the largely empty stage, “pointing out” Main Street, the railroad tracks, the school, churches, town hall, and Post Office, as well as introducing us to the various characters. Afterward he says plainly, “In our town, we like to know the facts about everything.” When Charles Webb, editor of the local paper, is called upon to make a comment, he tells us that it is a “very ordinary town, if you ask me. A little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller.”

While seemingly straightforward, Wilder’s dialogue often says more than it appears to. Emily’s mother responds to her daughter’s insistent teenage question, is she “pretty,” with a dismissive, “You are pretty enough for all normal purposes.” Later, when Emily is having a breakdown just before her wedding, she says to George, who is trying to calm her, “All I want is for someone to love me.” To which he responds, “I will, Emily. Emily, I will try.” She says poignantly, “I mean forever. Do you hear me? Forever and ever.” No additional dialogue is necessary for us to feel the emotional intensity of the scene.

All the aforementioned actors are seasoned professionals. But appropriate to the small-town aspect of the play, Munafo includes Islanders in the cast after having sent out an audition notice about the performing opportunity. “I felt I wanted to involve the community in a larger way in the play at the Playhouse,” Munafo says, “so there are community members in the cast of 26, and five are professional actors, and a couple are more experienced. The others are from the community, many on stage for the first time.”

Munafo, who directed the play 22 years ago, wanted to bring “Our Town” back because she loves it, emphasizing that it is one of the classics of American theater. But she says, “It’s hard to cast a play of this size. It was difficult to have that many people make the commitment to the rehearsal schedule and the run of a play. People often say, ‘Oh, I’d love to be in something,’ but they don’t realize you’re committing to 14 performances and the dress rehearsal and the rehearsals prior to that, depending on the size of your role. People have a lot going on in their lives. So many of them have jobs and other things going on. It was hard getting everybody here at one time. We rehearsed in bits and pieces.”

Despite the challenges, Munafo has created an ensemble who, regardless of their theater experience, demonstrably support one another in their dedication to the performance. Munafo says that this is “the best of both worlds, professional actors and community actors working together in a large American play. It’s hard to cast them, but I thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot again.’ It’s a fully committed cast.”

“There’s so much I love about the play. The simplicity of it. It’s done on a bare stage. The writing, the characters, the story,” she says. “That’s what I’m always looking for. A good story. And the fact the Island is like a small town, and the story is about small-town life, how involved we are in each other’s lives. And how much of an impact you can make without even realizing it on ordinary lives in ordinary days.”

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