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Waukesha Civic Theatre's offers Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' for the first time

On the left, occupants of the Grover's Corners cemetery; on the right, funeral attendees brave the rain in one of "Our Town's" best-known scenes.

On the left, occupants of the Grover's Corners cemetery; on the right, funeral attendees brave the rain in one of "Our Town's" best-known scenes.

Oct. 30, 2012

Looking for an autumn mini-vacation destination? Try Grover's Corners, N.H.

Granted, the 2,642-citizen community "just across the Massachusetts line" would be several hundred miles from Waukesha. But the time machine they call theater (in this case, the Waukesha Civic Theatre) enabled last Friday's "Our Town" opening night crowd to spend a couple hours in the faux Grover's Corners of 1901-13.

"Our Town," Madison-born Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prizewinner of 1938, stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of "The Glass Menagerie" and "Death of a Salesman" in the all-time great American dramatic plays category. Many of us first encountered "Our Town" in a high school English class. Some will remember that the play references changes in early-20th century America, such as the advent of the automobile and the practice of locking house doors, while depicting (a) the daily routine in a tiny town, (b) a couple's courtship and marriage and (c) the phenomenon of death.

It is surprising that the run slated to last through Nov. 11 represents the first "Our Town" production in WCT's 55-year history. But the Wilder masterpiece is, and always will be, well worth mounting.

A literary scholar once wrote, "'Our Town' violates most of the traditions of the theater. There are no complex characters who lend themselves to psychological analysis. The setting is the barest minimum. There is virtually no plot; consequently no suspense, expectation or anticipation. Why, then, is the play so popular?"

Because, we will wager, "Our Town" is tremendously relatable. Like the residents of Grover's Corners, playgoers have delivered newspapers, gotten involved in Scouting, struggled with math in school, sung in church choirs, fallen in love, married, become parents … have, in short, lived typical lives. As the play's answer to a Greek chorus, the Stage Manager, declares at the end of the second of "Our Town's" three acts, "Once in a thousand times it's interesting." And yet, that central character might've added, "always, always engaging."

Dave Boxhorn is as good a Stage Manager as we've encountered in "Our Town" productions dating back to 1980, appropriately avuncular as he dispenses pearls of wisdom ("There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being"; "on the whole, things don't change much"; "you're 21 or 22 and you make some decisions; then whisssh! you're 70"). Boxhorn is a delight to watch and listen to: he simply looks and sounds the part.

As George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the boy and girl next door, Brandon Haut and Brooke Bellehumeur work well together. The pair demonstrate a welcome awareness that good acting, like communicating in general, is a largely nonverbal commodity.

With regard to some of the smaller roles, Mina Miller is an excellent fit for the no-nonsense Mrs. Webb, Emily's mother. We also enjoyed the typical kid sister character of Rebecca Gibbs and Holly Penzkover's characterization of same. We're tempted to label Jamie Ryan "WCT's resident father figure," as Ryan was Helen Keller's father in last season's fine drama "The Miracle Worker" and is George and Rebecca's dad, Dr. Gibbs, in "Our Town."

University of Wisconsin-Waukesha drama professor Steve Decker, in his scenes as Simon Stimson, commands the stage, succinctly capturing the surliness and agony of an alcoholic choir director.

In a performance space virtually devoid of props and scenery (as the playwright intended), sound effects contribute considerably to creating what feels like a tangible town. Robb Smith, identified in the program as director/scenic designer/master carpenter/sound designer, situates a considerable amount of the action in the aisles of the auditorium, including a riveting procession of funeral attendees.

"My, wasn't life awful - and wonderful," a graveyard denizen muses as "Our Town's" final curtain looms. If we were to choose between that quotation's adjectives to evaluate the current WCT production, we'd definitely come down on the side of "wonderful."

- Tom Jozwik

IF YOU GO

Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre

What: "Our Town"

When: Through Nov. 11

Where: 264 W. Main Street

Tickets: (262) 547-0708

Information: www.waukeshacivictheatre.org

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