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Reviving a Classic in Rhinebeck

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 28th, 2017

While Thornton Wilder wrote many plays, Our Town (1938) endures like a towering, living monument that can move minds and hearts into the fertile landscape of civilization. This meta-play requires no props. Written in plain language, it can suddenly soar into poetry. The play defies most conventions of playwriting. Our Town is probably the greatest American play and its wisdom is on display at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck. Director Patrick McGriff has concentrated on the text of play and has brought the actors to live the text. The production’s only props are chairs (the silly and awkward ladders that have burdened conventional productions have vanished).

McGriff has taken the liberty to split the main role of stage manager into two parts. This is effective innovation, even though Andy Crispell manages a more superbly nuanced performance than Wendy Urban Mead. Brian Kubsch as Mr. Webb turns in such a solid performance that he becomes the foundation upon which other actors are able to build. Young Rebecca Gibbs in ponytails supplies a buoyant Tessa Fountain. Tricia Franklin as old Mrs. Soames portrays an attractive matter-of-fact quality that adroitly eschews the temptation of cliché. The lynchpin scene to the play remains the love scene between Emily Webb and George Gibbs. This scene, in all its anxiety and innocence, is nailed by Rebecca Rivera and Aaron Stewart.

Costume is simplified into t-shirts with role names stenciled on the back. This sounds awful as I write this, yet in the end this device effectively melds into the theme of gravestones which dominate the ending of the play. One aspect of the play’s genius is that it dramatizes the tendency of people over the age of fifty to conduct imaginary dialogues with their departed parents. Another aspect of its genius is that catharis is designed not to affect characters (yet it does change Emily Webb's perspective on life) on stage but the audience viewer, whose theater seat is his/her future gravestone. Although the play is set in a small town at the dawn of the twentieth century, its place in the broad chronology of human history remains timeless. Lobsang Camacho, who designed the costumes, has also done the lighting with such unobtrusive skill that he performs magic without one being aware of it.

There is much in this play for both old and young, and there are some happy aspiring thespians from local elementary schools in this wonderful production. The play is like a ticking clock wound with such simple wisdom that it can and will bring tears to your eye and make you feel reborn in spirit to live life with renewed grace.

This production, divided into two acts rather than the traditional three, is scheduled for a short run over two weekends. While weather can be a discouraging factor at this time of year, this play will turn winter into spring, at least in your heart, if not your head.