Theater Review: Northern Stage opens with old play, new theater

 

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Copyright 2015 Rob Strong
Dress rehearsal of Our Town at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vermont on Tuesday, October 6, 2015.

By Jim Lowe

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — “Our Town,” Thorton Wilder’s classic tale of American small-town life, was written in 1938. But Northern Stage’s production, which opened its 2015-2016 season at its new Barrette Center for the Arts Oct. 10, is more about “our town” 2015.

Not that Carol Dunne, the theater’s artistic director and the play’s director, has done something avant-garde with this now almost rustic tale. The production, which runs through Oct. 31, and is set in a nebulous now, is a celebration of the “town” and the entire Upper Valley area that made the $9 million theater possible ($8.5 million paid for). And those folks were there to celebrate.

“Our Town” tells the story of two families in the fictitious Grovers Corners, N.H., at the beginning of the 20th century. Told by a narrator with no set and a minimum of props, the lives of the Webb and Gibbs families unfold through a series of vignettes in three acts, “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Dying.”

Sutton Crawford was Emily Webb and Casey Predovic played the role of George Gibbs, the play’s love interest. Beginning with comparing notes in high school, through the pain of beginning love to the finality of one of their deaths, the two actors’ performances are natural, funny and heartwarming. Particularly poignant and well done was the truly awkward scene when they discover they are in love over their first fight and ice cream sodas.

Jamie Horton delivered the play’s most delicious performance as Emily’s journalist father Charles Webb. Perhaps the most priceless moment in the play was Horton’s Charles giving young George marital advice — though there were many other scenes that enjoyed Horton’s wry wit.

Christian Kohn was the salt-of-the-earth New England doctor as George’s father Frank Gibbs, while Amy Tribbey was Julia, his frustrated but ever-loving wife. Amanda Rafuse, Northern Stage’s director of development, was an earthy Myrtle Webb.

John Hutton was good old New England natural as the stage manager, the narrator. Jarvis Green was sympathetic as the unfortunate choir director Simon Stimson. Eric Love, the theater’s assistant artistic director and director of education, was the pedantic Professor Willard — and played a sweet cello obbligato to the many musical moments.

The acting throughout was consistent with Northern Stage’s usual professional level, though the cast was filled out by able local amateurs, including children from the theater’s education program.

There is no question that this production was designed to showcase the new theater. The fact that the stage was laid bare revealed how wide, deep and tall it is — allowing seemingly endless possibilities, including two levels. Dan Kotlowitz’s creative dramatic lighting showcased the state-of-the-art lighting system.

The audience is seated in 240 comfortable seats, each with three feet of legroom, in severely banked rows in three sections around the forefront of the stage (much like the Briggs Opera House).

Entrance is through a most attractive lobby, with an elevator to the second level (including handicapped accessible on both levels). Just as important, there are very large restrooms — and a bar.

“Our Town” seemed to be just the right flavor of corn, very well performed, to celebrate Vermont’s newest theater. Judging by the loud enthusiasm, Saturday’s audience certainly thought so.

Northern Stage

Northern Stage presents Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” Oct. 7-31 at the Barrette Center for the Arts, 74 Gates St. in White River Junction. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. matinees Thursdays. Tickets are $25-$55, with discounts for students; call 296-7000, or go online to www.northernstage.org.