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Sydney Theatre Company’s Our Town. All images: © BRETT BOARDMAN 2010

POSTED: 19 SEPTEMBER 2010

Our Town, by Thornton Wilder

Sydney Theatre Company | Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Circular Quay | Until 30 October

Our Town is a staple of American theatre, a play which chronicles three periods of life in a placid New Hampshire town at the opening of the 20th century. Thornton Wilder’s 1938 text is deceptively simple and in the past has been accused of being sentimental and old-fashioned. In truth, it is both, but it is also profound and still surprisingly significant.

It is divided into three acts — Daily Life, Love and Death — with reflective conversations signposting the course of time and distilling the quintessential nature of life with tenderness and compassion.

The Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre’s huge stage is almost empty — just two stepladders, tables and chairs. On either side of the stage we have two sets of neighbours: Dr Gibbs and his family on one side, Mr Webb, editor of the local paper, and his kin on the other.

The narrator/stage manager (Darren Gilshenan) is our charismatic guide, speaking directly to the audience as he maps out the geography of the town — Main Street, the public school, Town Hall and several churches —  using casual asides as if he were a Greek Chorus.

The highly skilled cast mime their actions accompanied by sound effects — the snapping of beans, milk bottles and newspapers arriving — produced on the borders of the stage. These effects are well timed and establish the slow-paced environment of Grover’s Corner.

The narrator introduces us to the characters as they engage in small-town, small talk. Dr Gibbs (Christopher Stollery) mundanely chats with the newspaper delivery boy (Michael Kilbane), and we are told that he would in due course obtain a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech and would be killed during World War I. “All that education for nothing.”

The entire cast make strong contributions, often despite their miniature roles, all parts being performed with an inclusive understanding of Wilder’s intent.

The relationship between George (Robin Goldsworthy) and Emily (Maeve Dermody) comprises the central narrative of the play — the only relationship we see from start to finish.

Dermody makes Emily wholly sympathetic, as she passes through American adolescent insecurities in the first two acts to her death during childbirth in the third.

Director Iain Sinclair shrewdly highlights the humour in the script, such as an painfully awkward discussion between George and his impending father-in-law on the day of the wedding, and the choir rehearsal lead by the drunken Mr Stimson (Frank Whitten). These moments of lightness offer a welcome hiatus from the play’s intense objective

The third act takes place in the graveyard where the dead of Grover’s Corner are sitting quietly and observantly. Suddenly we are confronted and challenged with the extent of the complacency with which we all live our lives.

Emily Webb, the intelligent schoolgirl of Act One and anxious bride of Act Two, joins her mother-in-law, Mrs Gibbs, in the cemetery, but is given an opportunity to experience again a particular day in her existence.  In a salient flashback she goes back to the day of her twelfth birthday and, with supernatural immediacy, we are reminded of the tenacious existence of being.

Nick Schliper, the god of lighting, compensates for the lack of scenery and establishes the required atmosphere, particularly, the ghost light throughout the second and third act which whispers to us to live in the here and now.

Our Town’s universality implies that we should all see it at some time in our existence, and this intelligent, seamless and touching production is unlikely to be matched — so seize the day!

Maeve Dermody

Maeve Dermody and Anita Hegh

Robin Goldsworthy, Darren Gilshenan, Josh Quong Tart and Maeve Dermody

Darren Gilshenan

Susan Prior, Toni Scanlan and Anita Hegh

Robin Goldsworthy and Ashleigh Cummings

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