Who knew that "Our Town" was a precursor to "Stranger Things"?
Playwright Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic is not as peculiar as the Netflix series. But the three-act drama culminates by spilling the supernatural current that courses under its Norman Rockwell facade.
You can feel that energy in director Ben McGovern's production that opened Friday at Artistry in Bloomington. Headlined by the wryly iconic Linda Kelsey ("Lou Grant") and Twin Cities stage stalwart Ansa Akyea, McGovern's staging shows that even as "Our Town" orbits small-town life in the first years of the 20th century, it can be less a quaint relic than something that speaks to us today.
But what does the play say?
Well, something about the inexorability of it all as we construct and deconstruct our lives just like the characters move furniture and break down walls on designer Rick Polenek's minimalist set. There's also an implicit statement about seizing some joy and taking flight, if you can, between birth and the inevitable oblivion. For even if we could return from the dead, no good can come of it.
But it's not all grimness in Grover's Corners, N.H., Wilder's fictional town set between 1901 to 1913. There's the neighborly stuff in the first act as Dr. Gibbs (Akyea) and Mrs. Gibbs (Adelin Phelps) fall into the ruts of husband and wife — a marriage mirrored, with different light in the same spectrum, by the Webbs — newspaper editor husband Charles (Jason Ballweber) and his dutiful wife, Myrtle (Elise Langer).
There's a kind of stasis in all of the characters' lives, as if they are planted in place and will grow and die thus. Of course, the characters move jauntily around, so they're not quite trees. But their choices, and their destinies, are rooted.
If there's any hope for change, or flight, it's embodied by young lovers George Gibbs (Jelani Pitcher) and Emily Webb (Brianna Joy Ford), who marry in the second act.
Kelsey brings an understated irony to the Stage Manager, a role that has famously been played with reserve by Henry Fonda and twinkling warmth by Paul Newman. Kelsey meets us in the middle of those two, a wise but not world-weary narrator who knows the story of all the characters — and, by extension, of us. She tells us about the characters with understanding and empathy.
Kelsey leads the cast, which includes a slyly cutting Craig Johnson as the organist, with confidence. The principal roles are well acted, with notable performances by newcomers Pitcher and Ford, who bring innocence and joy to the young lovers who marry young before their brains are even fully developed. Still, their light is something to hold onto as the drama moves to its inevitable end.