Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Shaw Festival brings Our Town to life in Old Towne Niagara

There is a certain sadness surrounding this season at the Shaw Festival, as everyone involved from cast, crew, office staff and theatre patrons acknowledge this will be Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell's final season at the helm.

With that in mind the gentle, bittersweet production of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town is a perfect vehicle to capture that feeling of longing many are experiencing this season while attending the Festival.  Director Molly Smith has given us - and the Festival - the perfect sendoff for Maxwell.

As Smith mentions in her Director's Notes, Our Town remains one of the greatest American plays.  "It's plainspoken," she reminds us, "and is a deep meditation on love, family, marriage and death."  Set in turn of the century America, the play actually takes place in mythical Grover's Corners in New Hampshire, and mirrors what life was like at the time throughout most all of small-town America.

This is not an exciting play, if you equate excitement with suspense, fast pacing and computer-generated special effects.  That, of course, is what many people today are accustomed to while going to the movies these days.

No, here the pace is anything but fast and there is not even a computer in the script to generate anything, really.  But what we do have is the fatherly Benedict Campbell as the Stage Manager, talking directly to the audience throughout the play, describing the action to come and keeping everyone grounded at the same time.

Campbell strings together the scenes of love, marriage, life and yes, ultimately death coming to Grover's Corners with the skill of one who has been there, lived the life himself and relay that depth of knowledge to the audience.  He strikes the perfect balance of information, commentary and gentle humour as he keeps Our Town moving along at that leisurely pace people knew all too well over a century ago.

We also know so many of these people in the play:  people like Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs played by Patrick Galligan and Catherine McGregor, and Mr. and Mrs. Webb, played by Patrick McManus and Jenny L. Wright.  These two households form the basis for much of the action in the play, as their children George and Emily fall in love and marry.

As George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the real-life husband-and-wife team of Charlie Gallant and Kate Besworth exude genuine love and affection that crosses the footlights and reaches out to touch your heart.  They are real, they are as grounded as the rest of the residents of the town, and they plan to raise their children here.

The rest of the cast is equally strong, with special mention going to David Schurmann in the dual roles of Professor Willard and Joe Stoddard and Sharry Flett as Mrs. Soames.  Really though, there is not a weak link in the cast to be found anywhere.

Not exciting enough for you?  Take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself if this is not what we all sort of long for from time to time in our own lives:  a simple life in a small-town free of the hectic schedules we are ruled by every day in the 21st century.

That is why this play appears as comfortable as a cardigan you put on at the end of a hard day at work, and why this particular production works so well.  It rings true in a world that today often clangs with dissonant noise all around us.

Director Molly Smith has crafted a beautiful play, rich in sentiment and melancholy, yet not at all maudlin or depressing.  Set design by Ken MacDonald and costumes by William Schmuck are exquisite in their clean simplicity of design, echoing a far simpler time so long ago.

Emily asks at the end of the play, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  Every, every minute?"  Probably not, but Our Town seems like the perfect place to live your life at any time, and you might very well long to spend part of your life in a town like this while watching Our Town.

Our Town is about as perfect a theatre piece as you're likely to find anywhere, and rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars.  It runs at the Royal George Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 15th.

Have a great week!

August 17th, 2016.

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