I loved Our Town when I was sixteen and played Emily at school, but I didn't remember much about it. I knew that Thornton Wilder's play was a sweetly moving evocation of small-town American life at the beginning of the twentieth century, but with a plot involving perpetually kitchen-bound women, community gossip, a pair of kids discovering their love for each other at a soda fountain and the gentle centrality of the local church, I imagined it was probably dated.
But in the hands of PHAMALy, Our Town is rock solid.
This is the first time the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League has performed a non-musical, and the group took a risk doing so. Our Town takes place on an almost bare stage, and all of the focus is on the actors. They have to carry the action with their bodies and speaking voices; there's no scenery or costuming to distract from a wavering walk or a dropped line, no music to carry the emotion. The gamble pays off: Under the direction of Steve Wilson and Nick Sugar, PHAMALy not only honors the play's quiet depth, but also adds shining new colors.
Our Town is about the sacredness of life in the face of death's inevitability. Almost anyone who's ever had a life-threatening illness has thought about how precious ordinary, everyday moments and interactions are. Each American soldier serving in Iraq must ache for the chance to watch a boring rerun at home on TV, engage in a dumb squabble with his wife, wipe the egg from his toddler's face or just plain scratch his butt while changing into pajamas in the warm safety of his bedroom. And PHAMALy actors deal with loss on a much more intimate basis than most of the rest of us. For some, a simple action like putting on trousers or negotiating a snowy sidewalk becomes a challenge. When one actor who's playing a member of Our Town's community of the dead comments, "Live people don't understand," the line has a particular resonance.
Several members of this troupe are highly skilled actors, and all of the performances have honesty, grace and strength. You couldn't ask for a more convincing seventeen-year-old Emily Webb than wheelchair-bound Regan Linton, who gives both vulnerability and a sweet maturity to the role. Daniel Traylor, who plays her husband-to-be, George, is full of feeling and sprightly charm. Lucy Roucis brings her usual dignified warmth to the role of Emily's mother, and Charles "Chaz" Jacobson's portrayal of the suicidal alcoholic, Simon Stimson, tears at your heart. Samantha Barrasso's young Rebecca Gibbs is an absolute scene-stealer as -- in one of the play's most famous speeches -- she prattles about a letter sent to "Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God."
The action is stitched together by a wise, all-knowing Stage Manager, and I'm having trouble remembering any performance I've seen recently as impressive as that of Leonard Barrett in this role. He effortlessly embodies the crucial mix of melancholy and joy that characterizes the play. He doesn't exactly breach the fourth wall; when he speaks, it simply isn't there. He's just talking about the most important things in life -- quietly, humorously and directly to your soul.
We all know that our bodies are frail things, subject to unexpected and unimagined insults from accident or illness, but Our Town and PHAMALy remind us that the human spirit is unquenchable.
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