at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
When you decide to present a well-known, quality chestnut, you’re declaring that you either have a fresh vision or else you’re going to new heights in production standards. Hurtling above raised expectations is the stock in trade of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with its schedule of Shakespeare and other plays that everyone has seen from high school on. OSF also shares new perspectives on tired war horses many times a season.
Unfortunately, this edition of Our Town is neither innovative nor Tony Award material. It’s a technically competent production without gaffs.
We’re able to enjoy Wilder’s charming little small town and its stories. Yet, we are able to watch the graveyard act without sadness because this town is all surface and no emotional depth.
Director Chay Yew apparently told the actors to play it cool and disinterested.
There was no chemistry between the young lovers, Todd Bjurstrom as George Gibbs and Mahira Kakkar as Emily Webb. From the first act onward, the script telegraphed that they were meant to get together. But the on-stage activity contained no warmth, no meaningful glances, or even much youthful “I like you” awkwardness. The couple’s Act II wedding remained a motivationless mystery, even after a long flashback which showed more conversation… but no more emotional interaction. Kakkar was stilted and Bjurstrom was gangling. They weren’t a match made in heaven.
But, that’s okay, because none of the adult couples displayed affection for each other, either. A proforma kiss on the cheek here and a perfunctory tap on the arm there mark the emotional connections between Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs (Hassan El-Amin and Demetra Pitman) and between the Webbs (Richard Howard and Kimberly Scott). Their relationships with each other seemed vague. Their stories left the audience uninvolved. Howard has the further handicap of bringing his stock kindly-but-bewildered dad forward into yet another play. That persona can be amusing in a comedy like Tartuffe or Noises Off, but it doesn’t belong here. Besides, Richard, enough already!
The stage was appropriately sparse with pantomiming substituting for props. Here, though, the technique was only so-so. The miming was unobtrusive, but also ineffective. The milkman’s (Rex Young’s) milk wagon never appeared for me, and the passing of cups and condiments were little better than random hand waves.
Only Tony Heald’s Stage Manager made me feel like I was watching first-class talent. His asides and moves were both efficient and engaging. He drew me in and made Grover’s Corners a place I wanted to know more about. His quick segueways from narrator to on-stage character were lighthearted and fun to watch, too.
I am only perplexed about whether to blame the casting or the directing for creating this just-competent production. I think I’ll pick direction, because given the talent shown in other plays by many of the cast, director Yew must intentionally created an evening of blasé high school theater.