‘Our Town’ darkens Des Moines while raising the bar2/19/2014
I have a problem — a great problem for any theater critic: I have enjoyed a season of theater, which required no digging to find compliments. If the Des Moines metro has ever delivered a one-two punch as powerful as “True West,” at Tallgrass, and “Our Town,” at Repertory Theater of Iowa (RTI), I haven’t seen it, and that’s spanning a decade of play-going. In the latter, Thornton Wilder’s quiet but richly-peopled evocation of Grover’s Corners, N.H., has little in common with the Sam Shepard’s (“True West”) explosive two-hander, closeted in a ranch house in Los Angeles, Calif. Yet together — hang on… I’m digging — they raise the bar for local theatre.
“Our Town” sold out its opening night. This was, in part, because of the virgin venue: the Des Moines Social Club’s new Kum and Go Theater. The space proved an adaptable black box with bell-clear acoustics and props for the neon sign. A beacon neon sign on the street corner was a win as well. Inside the theater, the set was limited to another town square at center stage, a riser of polished maple with old fangled banisters, a few chairs and a ladder in each corner. As Wilder argued, concerning his Pulitzer Prize winner: “Our hope, our despair are in the mind — not in things, not in ‘scenery.’ ”
RTI risks a bit of scenery, stacking antiques along the walls. These Tiffany lamps and whatnot, however, both reinforce the era — the turn of the previous century — and they cast a shadow that reaches to the turn of this one. They suggest the looming obsolescence of all our bric-a-brac and prompt the chill that any honest production of “Our Town” should deliver. For all the play’s small-town charm, its climactic question comes from a doomed teenage bride: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it?” She gets her answer from an alcoholic suicide: “Alive, (we) move about in a cloud of ignorance.”
The success of this production, then, resides in its balance between warmth and shivers. In the warmer moments, John Robinson makes the most of his pliant features. Editor Webb likes to set up straight-faced punchlines, but as the years pass, often the joke’s on him. So, too, Dr. Gibbs seems the most educated man in the Corners, and Mark Gruber underplays his advantage marvelously with simple well-chosen gestures. Yet his schooling proves helpless against his hard luck. Such ironies don’t escape the stage manager, of course, who wisely makes him appear years older than anyone else. Richard Richards marshals a gaze that grows flinty as it widens, exposing an awkward, toothy grin.
It’s in the women, however, that Wilder’s genius glows brightest. As Ma Gibbs, Kerry Skram develops central contradictions — her hands busy but her smile fragile — and Jami Bassman, as Mrs. Webb, turns her back on the people she loves. As her daughter Emily, the crux of the story, Katy Merriman trumps her former success in “The Importance of Being Ernest.” Her mannerisms — face and chin collapsing upon her shoulders — draws in the audience as Emily realizes unhappy final discoveries. This embodies the undertow of the drama, carrying us into the dark while pushing local theater to fresh heights. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.