Houston Family Arts Center Tackles the Difficult, Magnificent Our Town

The set-up:

Our Town, Thornton Wilder's great masterpiece about life in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, at the beginning of the 20th century, glorifies the mundane: the scent of heliotropes in the moonlight, strawberry phosphates at the drug store, shelling green beans with a neighbor, a young couple just out of high school getting jitters before their marriage, the sound of the 5:45 train to Boston, the milkman's daily delivery, the grief at a funeral. The town is life, and life, according to Wilder, is the mind of God. Everything is important, and nothing is. The play, which is simplicity itself, is like one of those infinite pull-back shots: start with an atom and end somewhere outside the universe. Zoom back in from way up high, and end up in the Gibbs kitchen, where mother Julia prepares one more breakfast in a lifetime of making breakfasts.

It's a quiet play, even though it deals with life's everyday verities -- birth, courtship, marriage, and death -- but the drama's reined in and outbursts controlled. As the little moments pile up, immense swells of emotion sweep through us and threaten to overwhelm. The play's oceanic power is undeniable, which is primarily accomplished by Wilder's idiosyncratic stagecraft, which banishes sets and most props, leaving the whole play to our imagination. We bring forth those heliotropes, smell the bacon cooking in the kitchen, feel the cold rain splattering the tombstones. The play is swept of clutter. Two ladders represent the upstairs bedroom windows for young George and Emily (Robert Lewis and Sarah McQueen); trellises become the household outlines of the Gibbs (L.D. Green and Whitney Zangarine) and Webbs (Jeffrey Brown and Rita Hughes); rows of chairs face the audience to make the cemetery. Like the minimal setting, the play's clean and pure.

With unblinking dispassion, Wilder shows us the fleeting nature of life, how fast it all goes. Daily life (Act I) leads into Love and Marriage (Act II), which skips right to the graveyard (Act III). The Stage Manager lays it all out, first, as tour guide to the town's undistinguished history; soon, he takes a part in the play as an annoyed lady on the street or the understanding drugstore owner; then he's back as omniscient narrator, showing us the layout of the high mountain resting place for the dead before he guides Emily back into the past, where Wilder's darker themes hit home.

The execution:

Houston Family Arts Center gets a lot of Wilder right. Patrick Barton's Stage Manager is folksy yet brutally clear-eyed; McQueen's questioning Emily has an innocent laugh; Matt Hudson's Professor Willard proclaims his dry geology statistics with pomp; J. Blanchard's town drunk Simon Stimson doesn't play for comedy, but keeps his character sour and uncompromising; Zangarine's Mrs. Gibbs is no-nonsense but conveys the disappointment of dreams unfulfilled; and Hughes's Mrs. Webb shows dignity in a marriage that has settled into rote.

Most of the characters, though, aren't completely lived in, the actors still finding their way into their roles. Some of the minor ones seem to have been cast yesterday, and are still catching up. On its surface, Our Town is plain cotton, but Wilder's homespun is as intricately woven as a Persian carpet; there are figures within figures. Its depths are treacherous and must be played without artifice. Once arms start fluttering or hands hang limply, life flies out of the play. Nothing is haphazard in Wilder, and the author makes it perfectly obvious we're watching a play. There's plenty of mime, and the Stage Manager continually breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to us, even interrupting Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb in mid-scene, rushing them off the stage with their bowl of beans to present the Professor. Or he'll start time over - during the marriage ceremony, he backs up to show George and Emily at the drug store during their first flush of love.

Director Liza Garza keeps a steady pace throughout, and the minimal production is enhanced by an effective use of sound effects - the nostalgic glass clink of milk bottles zooms us to a time long past. (Not everything should be left to our imagination.) But the idea to costume this period play in contemporary garb doesn't sit well. The intent, published in the playbill, was to keep these characters relevant to today's audience. Considering Wilder fills his play with milkmen, the first automobiles, and such arcane tasks as chopping wood for the kitchen stove, how relevant is a tank top?

The verdict:

Thornton Wilder's magnificent play embraces opposites: melancholy against hope, life straining against the dark, complacency against kindness. To keep all its complexities intact, transparency is needed, and Our Town is one of American theater's most difficult plays to stage. While Houston Family Arts Center's production is far from definitive, there's just enough Wilder in it for us to see ourselves - and that's half the battle for any theater.

Wilder's unconventional, modern play runs through September 9 at Houston Family Arts Center, 10760 Grant Rd. Purchase online at the company website or call 281-685-6374. Tickets are $14 to $20.

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