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