Our Town

The Actors' Gang certainly infuses its mandate to promote "daring interpretations of the classics."

Dean Baquet

The Actors’ Gang certainly infuses its mandate to promote “daring interpretations of the classics” into its staging of one of the most iconic works of the American theater. Unfortunately, helmer Justin Zsebe’s random rendering of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 sojourn within a fin de secle New Hampshire village obliterates the scripter’s intention to evoke the simple truths and eternal connections gleaned from the rituals of small-town daily life. Instead, a plethora of caricaturized portrayals and arbitrary stage business, including a monumentally inappropriate Cirque du Soleil-ish acrobatic routine, reduce “Our Town” to the level of erratic scenic commentary.

Played out on Will Pellegrini’s nicely realized bare, footlighted, 19th-century vaudeville stage, the lower-middle-class doings at New Hampshire’s Grover’s Corners are hampered by Zsebe’s decision not to keep with the scripter’s request for much of the activity to take place around two tables and a bench. In the first-act depiction town life (set in 1901), there is so much pantomimed flailing by the two protagonist families, the Webbs and the Gibbses (underscored by an over-infusion of low-level sound effects), that the character interactions are rendered more comical than illuminating.

As the two central teenage characters, Vanessa Mizzone’s Emily Webb and Chris Schultz’s George Gibbs project a cartoonish impression of adolescence rather than truthfully inhabiting the persona of two young people on the brink of adulthood. This propensity for overwrought character commentary also hampers the portrayals of Brian Kimmet as tragic town drunk Simon Stimson, Scott Harris’ inexplicably tongue-tied historian Professor Willard, and April Fitzsimmons’ hyper town gossip Mrs. Soames.

The most jarring intrusion into this legiter is Katie Malia’s noticeably original portrayal of George’s younger sister, Rebecca Gibbs, who barges in on Emily’s and George’s supposedly endearing window-to-window conversation under a full moon by performing acrobatic routines on two floor-to-ceiling extensions of fabric. At least she didn’t drop a line.

Steven M. Porter’s portrayal of the Stage Manager is properly folksy and informative. Porter also makes viable, as the aged proprietor of the town’s soda fountain, one of play’s most important scenic events, the second-act blossoming of romance between Emily and George. Also deserving kudos is Pierre Adeli as milkman Howie Newsome. Adeli impressively communicates the ambivalence of a lower-class tradesman who relates to his customers on a daily basis but is reluctant to become part of their lives.

The most effective aspect of the production is Wilder’s third act mediation on death, set on the town’s hillside graveyard. Not even the staging, which has each of the dearly departed sitting on distracting multileveled swings, can detract from the haunting veracity of bygone Grover’s Corners citizenry lovingly receiving Mizzone’s Emily into their quiet company, much more believable as an adult than she is as a child.

Our Town

Ivy Substation, Culver City: 99 seats; $25 top

  • Production: The Actors' Gang presentation of a play in three acts by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Justin Zsebe.
  • Crew: Sets, Will Pellegrini; costumes, Suzanne Scott; lights, Jacqueline Reid; stage manager, Amber Koehler. Opened, reviewed, May 2; closes June 6. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MINS.
  • Cast: Stage Manager - Steven M. Porter Emily Webb - Vanessa Mizzone George Gibbs - Chris Schultz Mrs. Webb - Lindsley Allen Mrs. Gibbs - Annemette Anderson Mr. Webb - Andrew E. Wheeler Dr. Gibbs - Nathan Kornelis Howie Newsome - Pierre Adeli Simon Stimson - Brian Kimmet Professor Willard/Constable. - Scott Harris Rebecca Gibbs - Katie Malia Wally Webb - Seth Compton Mrs. Soames - April Fitzsimmons Joe Crowell - Barry O'Neil
  • Music By: