Our Town: Perfection in Simplicity
The first thing I noticed when I got to New York was the noise. I’m not from the smallest town in the world -- heck, my backyard faces the Florida Turnpike -- but it took a while to get used to hustle and bustle outside my dorm window at two in the morning, and that’s just in Washington Heights! Friends in Brookdale have described having been woken up by the morning traffic along 34th Street as early as 5:00 am, which I don’t think I would ever be able to get used to. And it’s more than just the city -- everything’s getting louder, and that’s not just the cranky old man in me talking. When I saw Interstellar back in 2014, I left the theater just short of a ruptured eardrum, and the volume really hasn’t been lowered since -- just watch any Michael Bay film and try talking over the yelling military characters and loud explosions every other scene. Even the library, ostensibly the last bastion of peace and quiet on Earth, has become a place of more than whispers and reading. If there’s one thing that’s been missing for a while, it’s some good old peace and quiet.
And lo, like light shining down from a stagelight, my prayers were answered when I watched the final dress rehearsal of SCDS, the Stern College Dramatics Society's simple, beautiful production of Our Town this past Monday night.
Our Town, first written in 1938 by playwright Thornton Wilder, is about the inhabitants of the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, on three days -- one in 1901, the second in 1904, and the third in 1914. There’s no bombastic action. There are no epic scores, or roaring traffic, or even conversations in the library. There is simply the play on the stage, and the audience watching the three days unfold in front of them. There are no complicated set pieces either; Grover’s Corners is not a place for complication. There are simply two tables, four (usually, sometimes more) chairs, and at one point, two ladders. The actresses mimed all other set pieces and actions, from lighting a stove to eating breakfast to walking a cow around town, a feat that I as an actor deeply respect -- I’m not sure how long I would be able to last myself if I had nothing to work with in front of me, and I tip my hat to the actresses of SCDS for pulling off what I consider to be one of the tougher aspects of acting.
There’s no real main character in Our Town either. As implied by the title, the play is about a town, and each of the various people who inhabit it -- the constable, the milkman, the paperboy -- is just as important as the other. If I had to pick out main characters among the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, out of necessity, they would be Emily Webb, played by Shoshy Ciment, and George Gibbs, played by Leah Weintraub, mostly because it is the story of three days in their lives in particular -- a day in high school, their wedding, and then the funeral of a loved one -- which provide the frame in which the play is housed. And they were fantastic in their respective roles. Both brought a range of deep emotion that elevated Our Town from a simple “day in the life” story to the piece of timeless Americana that Wilder had imagined when he originally wrote the play.
Another character whom I cannot write this review without praising would be the Stage Manager, played by Liorah Rubinstein. I’m sorry to inform all you fans of the fourth wall out there, whoever you are, that Our Town doesn’t have one. The Stage Manager -- not actually a stage manager, that job instead belonged to Becca Epstein -- inhabits a character in the play, as the conduit through which the audience experiences those three days in Grover’s Corners. She brings in a guest lecturer, fields questions about the town from the audience, and even stands in as some townspeople at points. But most of all -- and what Rubinstein nails in her performance -- she delivers lengthy, introspective monologues about life, death, love, and marriage, especially within the context of small-town America at the turn of the 20th century. And Rubinstein was perfect in the role -- she wasn’t too flashy, she didn’t go off-script, she didn’t interject anything into the play that Wilder wouldn’t have intended, except maybe reminding the audience to turn off their cell phones in the beginning (though I don’t think Wilder foresaw that aspect back in 1938, so I think I can give her a pass on this one).
But credit must be given where it is due, and the credit, much like the stage, belongs to each and every actress who inhabits a place in Grover’s Corners. From the more important players in the story, like Menucha Schuman’s portrayal of Emily’s mother, to the more incidental people in town, like Racheli Moskowitz’s milkman Howie Newsome and Dassah Cohen as a simple baseball player who mocks George at his wedding for growing old too soon, each and every actress brought to their character something memorable, something that made them feel necessary in Grover’s Corners. There was not a wasted line in Our Town, no wasted action that took me out of the small town of the stage in front of me. For about an hour and a half, with two intermissions, I was out of New York and in a small, quiet town, watching the day’s events unfold.
This all wouldn’t be possible without SCDS’s use of Schottenstein Theater. Much has been written in both The Commentator and The Observer celebrating this momentous occasion, and so I too shall throw in my two cents and say thank God they had it because it added so much to the experience of the small town feel that SCDS was going for. The professional lighting augmented the various times of day that transpired while also mirroring the emotions that the characters onstage were experiencing -- bright lights in happy weddings, darker blues in somber graveyards. Even if one were to ignore the lighting, close their eyes, and imagine just what Grover’s Corners must have looked like -- and it’s not that hard, Rubinstein’s Stage Manager gives a lot of details about the town, down to the (and I looked this up) inaccurate coordinates of where it could have possibly existed -- having it in a professional stage enhanced the whole experience beyond what it could have possibly been in Koch Auditorium or even Furst 501.
In short, simple terms, Our Town is the perfect, quiet remedy to the hectic weeks ahead. SCDS has transformed Schottenstein Theater into an oasis of calm, small town life amidst the chaotic college life around us. I’m so glad I saw it, and I can’t wait for what SCDS has in store for their future in the theater. As long as there are no explosions. Save those for Michael Bay, please.
Upcoming performances of Our Town will take place on December 5th, 6th, and 7th at 7:30 pm, and on December 10th at 2 pm. To purchase tickets for the show, visit https://scds.ticketleap.com/our-town/.