Jane Kaczmarek leads the Deaf West production of the Thornton Wilder classic.
In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the Stage Manager guides audiences through the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners. She confides in the audience, shares secrets, and points out revelations. Which is why the casting of Jane Kaczmarek in Pasadena Playhouse's production makes sense. She's an actor who naturally exudes a homespun serenity and knows how to twist a line to bring humor where another actor might miss it. Sadly, Kaczmarek also appears unfocused as the omniscient narrator, to the detriment of the production.
Our Town takes place at the turn of the last century, with a typical town moving forward into the future as horse-pulled carts are slowly being replaced by automobiles and those comfortable with the 19th century are getting jittery about progress. Two youngsters, George (Deric Augustine) and Emily (Sandra Mae Frank, voiced by Sharon Pierre-Louis), have grown up together in this small haven and find themselves in love. The town prepares for this wedding, a cherished event in a place where everyone knows each other's lives, but the audience is aware, thanks to the Stage Manager, of the bigger picture here: that love is just a moment in the circle of life, one that eventually will turn to death and a separation from loved ones. But that, too, in Our Town is a portion of the cycle.
This 1938 classic American play is an allegory of the human experience. The characters are archetypes, representing all people who live, work, fall in love, and then die, only to sit through eternity disconnected from those still in the living process. Though taking place in the beginning of the 20th century, the start of the industrial age, Our Town will always feel timeless. Wilder ingeniously uses self-reflexivity to call attention to the play's elements. The bare set, the nonexistent props, and the God-like Stage Manager remind audiences they are watching a play, a representation of their own fallacies and mortalities.
Director Sheryl Kaller brings in elements familiar to Deaf West audiences. The cast combines deaf and hearing actors, with all members signing, and voicers speaking for the deaf actors. As found in Deaf West's production of Spring Awakening, Kaller utilizes the natural voices of deaf actors to punctuate a moment. The pacing moves sleepily, however, and Kaller does not find enough distinct moments to make the production remarkable. Most of the elements are expected, which leaves audiences pleased but not astonished.
Frank and Augustine bring joyous innocence to Emily and George. Frank particularly fosters a sense of astonishment for the world around her. As the children's mothers, Alexandria Wailes and Annika Marks are a warm and loving presence. It is Kaczmarek who should bring all the elements together, but her performance lacks luster. She reads from the prop script and, at times, distractingly looks for her place in the script as if it was a crutch and not a directorial choice for her character. She fumbles several lines and generally seems unprepared. Unfortunately, the production falters without her guidance.
Ann Closs Farley's costumes put the audience in the New England milieu. Jared A. Sayeg uses backlighting most effectively in Act 3 to shadow out the actors. Green and white lights projected on the back wall create a wiping effect, separating the living from the dead and the past from the present. David Meyer's scenic design is spare but effective, with simple wooden chairs and ladders.
Pasadena Playhouse's choice of Our Town to celebrate the opening of their 100th season feels particularly resonant to celebrate a century of live theater. It makes for both a nostalgic slice of life and a reminder that life goes on.