Mark Rucker's production of "Our Town" begins a little ostentatiously, adding a layer or two of self-consciousness to a play that has just enough already. Rucker's concept is straightforward enough and it would glide easily into the homely beauty of Thornton Wilder's classic if Rucker didn't insist on calling attention to it.
Mark Rucker’s production of “Our Town” at South Coast Repertory begins a little ostentatiously, adding a layer or two of self-consciousness to a play that has just enough already. Rucker’s concept is straightforward enough — he peoples turn-of-the-century Grover’s Corners, N.H., with a multiethnic cast — and it would glide easily into the homely beauty of Thornton Wilder’s classic if Rucker didn’t insist on calling attention to it.
Color-blind casting is not the point here; the ethnic mix of the cast is too carefully calibrated for that to be the case. In a production that has the actors making up and chatting in view of the audience before the play begins, it’s clear we’re meant to notice that Dr. Gibbs is African-American and Mrs. Gibbs is white, while Mr. Webb is played by Armando Jose Duran and his spouse by Emily Kuroda. The concept has a few unfortunate side effects — we can’t help but wonder, as Mrs. Gibbs calls for her children to eat breakfast, just what hues they’re going to come in. And if you’re going to point up the story’s relevance to today’s melting-pot America, why have everyone attempt — and I do mean attempt — New England accents? It only draws attention to the fact that in a town where families have supposedly lived and intermarried for generations, nobody looks or sounds like anybody else.
But in truth, the wily Rucker may have just such reactions in mind. Because as Wilder’s play begins to cast its spell, we cease to notice the colors of the cast, and are caught up in the prosaic charm of Grover’s Corners and the poetry of Wilder’s vision. With the Stage Manager commenting chattily upon the action and the fourth wall being constantly breached, Wilder wanted us to be fully aware that it’s not life we’re watching unfold, but a distillation of it that allows us to see what is fleeting and what is eternal, what is large and what is small. In the end, Rucker makes us reflect that skin color is just another of the “layers of nonsense” that humanity troubles itself with while the joys of life slip silently away. We feel almost chagrined to have noticed it.
In Sanaa Lathan, who plays Emily, Rucker has found an actress who gives magnificent life to Wilder’s play. An African-American actress of radiant beauty , Lathan is vibrant as the young, headstrong Emily, whose hint of a whine bespeaks a youthful impatience that adds a terrible poignancy to Lathan’s portrayal of the doomed young woman.
She’s surrounded by an uneven cast — best are Kimberly Scott’s earthy, engaging Stage Manager and Duran as Emily’s father — but when she’s onstage, Lathan gives the play an enthralling lift. The final act — when Emily returns from the grave to watch her younger self cavorting happily and heedlessly on her 12th birthday, unaware of time slipping by — is staged by Rucker with artful simplicity on Michael Devine’s stark black set. It’s heartbreaking.