Review: Our Town (Soulpepper)

By Jenna Rocca

The Soulpepper Theatre Company returns to its roots with its hit classic, 2006 Dora Award-winning production of Our Town, the first play performed in Soulpepper’s Toronto home, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Our Town is framed in a meta-theatrical world, guided by a character named the “Stage Manager.” Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s Founding Artistic Director, slips into the role seamlessly, and his performance while the houselights are still on, placing the set pieces with precision, prompted my show companion to note facetiously: “I like how Albert Shultz really takes the time to make sure everything is perfectly in place; it just goes to show the care he puts in,” as if he does this for every production. Tee hee hee. We had high hopes.

The nameless narrator played by the company’s Director adds a very strong dimension to this otherwise deliberately banal play. Schultz really is a charismatic force and his moments onstage were the most electric. He begins by explaining that the upstage area is the “Main Street” of the town, and continually identifies all the areas of the scenes, seeing as there are no props in the play at all. Playwright Thornton Wilder really wanted to emphasize the forget-ability of the stories of these people’s regular, day-to-day lives, and to celebrate the predictable and commonplace in this small town of Grover’s Corners at the turn of the 20th century.

The three-act arc follows two neighboring families that marry into one another. The minutest tediums of life are mimed out by Nancy Palk and Jane Spidell as the mothers who prepare breakfast, greet the milkman, and the call their children down. By only the second time these rituals began to grate on me.

The “oh, there’s the policeman” aw-shucksery of the ritualized mundanity seemed to bode well with the audience who laughed at every instance of cuteness. Actual plotlines or individualized character story-arcs are avoided, as these are all meant to be archetypes of small-town America: the young couple gently pushed into marriage at a young age, forced to leave home and start their own family.

The bittersweet love story of George (Jeff Lillico) and Emily (Krystin Pellerin) serves only to be bittersweet. It stands as an example of the common American love story, free of romanticized, grand declarations of love, just a local townswoman breaking the fourth wall and proclaiming the unusual loveliness and grandeur of what appears to be a modest and regular old wedding, to the audience.

Walking out of Our Town I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favourite films, It’s a Wonderful Life. Our Town first premiered in 1938 and this classic 1946 Frank Capra film is based on a 1943 short story. I can’t help but wonder if its author was at all inspired by the small-town setting and message of the play: even ordinary townspeople can be heroic in their own small ways.

It’s particularly similar when Our Town’s George decides not to leave town and go away to agricultural school but instead to get married and learn from his uncle. Though Jimmy Stewart’s George (same name, I know) ultimately decides to stay in his small town, throughout his life he wanted to travel and be an adventurer, and promises to “lasso the moon” for his beloved. Like I mentioned, Our Town’s George barely even declares love, and the ambitions of some of these characters are as small as merely seeing the ocean once.

It is really as if the film’s story’s author took the concept of Our Town, but just embued it with some passion and high stakes. I highly doubt that if any of the characters of Our Town were to be shown life in Grover’s Corners had they never been born that there would be any difference at all. But the play celebrates that. Of course when one character is given the opportunity to look back on her life and revisit one day, she is encouraged to visit one of the most “inconsequential” and “ordinary” ones.

Soulpepper’s so-called crowning achievement was not a terrible adaptation of this classic play that didn’t really resonate with me at all. Other critics and audience members have said that it brought them to tears, but my only physical reaction was to roll my eyes. My play-going partner outright hated it and was almost fuming on the way out, mocking the self-consciously simplistic and cutesy dialogue. I actually had to ask him to settle down.

As for the small town simplicity of life in the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life, now that has repeatedly put a knot in both our throats. I fully dare you not to be moved while watching that film.

I am still eager to see what other tricks Albert Schultz has up his sleeve for the rest of this, the largest season yet at Soulpepper.


Our Town will be performed at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts sporadically up until June 18th, currently the last scheduled performance, however it is poised to become a staple of the company’s repertoire

– Tickets: $28 – $65 (plus HST) can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416.866.8666

– the Young Centre for the Performing Arts is located at 55 Mill Street, Building 49 (Map here)

Photo of Krystin Pellerin and Jane Spidell by Cylla von Tiedemann.

6 thoughts on “Review: Our Town (Soulpepper)”

  1. … agree, the play can feel deracinated. … but, i am always struck by how the playwright of “our town,” thorton wilder, has managed to simultaneously compress time, while expanding on the banal, as you say above. … mr. wilder is unusually forthright with the amount of detail it offers when showing the day-to-day routines of characters. so much so that, as you say above, it can grate on the nerves. and yet, “our town” manages to compress years and years of time on stage. … if there’s a message, and i’m not sure there is, but if “our town” had to be distilled to a message, based strictly on what happens onstage, i’d probably say that it goes something like: life is often no more than our most banal actions …

  2. That’s true, Adam. The fact is that it is indeed all details and no substance, which is what you say is the message. That message is very dull and distressing to me.

  3. … not to take this too far, but i didn’t say there was no substance, just that banality — routine, and familiarity; the substance of “our town” — is a large part of life. … if you’re not distressed by the human condition, you haven’t been paying attention.

  4. I don’t know about your experience of the human condition Adam, I can only speak for my own. If your understanding of the human condition really is distressing, well I’m just sorry to hear that.

  5. I, personally was delighted by the take the Soulpepper Theatre took on the wonderful classic by Mr. Wilder. The message is that we have to simply take the time in our day-to-day lives to notice the little things. The performance by both Krystin and Jeff were also great. Jenna, Im sorry maybe you havent realized this yet but life isnt all fun and games. There are moments which force you to believe life is pointless. I also like the concentration of the actors on stage while completing simple tasks like stringing beans etc. To conclude I LOVED this performance and hope to see more wonderful pieces such as these.

  6. Alan I do agree that Krystin and Jeff were great. It’s not that I didn’t like the production, Soulpepper is a flawless company, I just philosophically do not agree with the text.

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