On the Town

   The greatest works of art transcend time. Even when anchored to a specific era, specific milieu, specific event, truly great literature delivers universal themes that touch audiences years after publication.

Colin McPhillamy in “Our Town.” Photo by Alicia Donelan

   Such is the case with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, on stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through November 9. Set in the quaint town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire at the turn of the twentieth century, the play distills life at crucial crossroads for a few of the town’s residents, namely George Gibbs, Emily Webb and their families.

   The first show in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ fifteenth-anniversary season, Our Town is an artistic—if sometimes sobering—accomplisment for director J. Barry Lewis. With a gentle hand, Lewis guides his actors through this dream-like play, hitting comical marks while honoring the life, love and loss themes for which the play has become known.

   The structure of Our Town is slightly unconventional as a stage manager narrates it, breaking the fourth wall to converse with the audience throughout the show’s three acts. As said stage manager, Colin McPhillamy leads the audience from year to year—1901, 1904 and 1913—marking the emotional shifts and struggles of the town’s residents. Always seen but never distracting, McPhillamy strikes the perfect balance between voyeur and omniscient force. Not to mention, his natural British accent, reminiscent of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, is a sonic joy.

   In so much as Our Town is all about its ensemble, it is also all about George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the lifelong neighbors whose budding relationship blooms during the course of the play. As George, Joe Ferrarelli is a spunky, earnest youth with a vaguely Boston brogue. His feelings towards Emily ring true, even if his role does not demand as much depth. Emily, on the other hand, evolves from lovesick teen to self-assured mother, and must tackle life’s biggest obstacle along the way. Emiley Kiser delivers the most touching performance of the production, oscillating between gentle comic relief and gut-wrenching vulnerability with the flutter of an eyelash.

Joe Ferrarelli, Colin McPhillamy and Emiley Kiser in “Our Town.” Photo by Alicia Donelan

   As with many other Palm Beach Dramaworks productions, additional accolades go to scenic and lighting designer Paul Black and costume designer Robin L. McGee. When trying to convey a very specific period, scenic and costume design become crucial, and both Black and McGee rise to the challenge. McGee’s costumes are true to the time, complete with corsets and knee-high socks. Black’s challenge was a little more daunting as Wilder’s text specifies minimal setting and very few props. To comply, Black constructed a skeletal structure, comprised of two levels and flanked by two staircases, while the stage manager demarcates the town’s topography for the audience.

   All of these elements—the nuanced performances, the experimental structure, the delicate staging and the somber themes—mean that Our Town does not make for a carefree night at the theater. It does, however, deliver on Palm Beach Dramaworks’ promise of “theatre to think about,” and foreshadows a fantastic season for one of West Palm Beach’s top companies.

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