Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Zero Hour" - It's Definitely Not Daylight Saving Time


Erika Cuenca as Rebecca and Daina Michelle Griffith as O in The Zero Hour: Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater




Madeleine George, a playwright new to me, has had several plays produced or developed at venues such as Pittsburgh City Theatre and the Berkeley Rep, one of my very favorite American theaters.
During the 2010-2011 City Theatre season, I missed a production of George’s "Precious Little," and, so, went in cold to an opening night performance of the playwright’s "The Zero Hour," now getting a staging at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie. I left only lukewarm.
Admittedly, I was impressed by George’s flashes of brilliant dialogue, but unfortunately they were counterbalanced by nearly the same number of mediocre moments.
In "The Zero Hour," there’s a lot going on, what with one character, Rebecca, coming to terms with her homosexual inclinations while, at the same time, trying to get at the truth in a children’s educational book she’s writing about the Nazis and the Holocaust. Her sexual playmate, simply called O, is Out with a capital O, a feisty feminine unemployed Lesbian with mother issues.
The play opens with the two young ladies together in bed, then proceeds through a series of rather brief scenes in which both actors play multiple roles that include their mothers, a therapist, and several Germans from the Hitler Youth Movement that Rebecca fantasizes about meeting on the Number 7 subway in New York City.
The play runs about 90 minutes uninterrupted by an intermission, and the two actress assume their multiple roles by donning clothing that helps shape their personae. While Rebecca struggles with issues of her own identity, she also explores how 85 percent of the German population got caught up in the Nazi movement just prior to and during the Second World War.
Genocide, she recalls, was not limited to 1930s and 40s Germany as she goes on to list other instances of ethnic and racial cleansing, including the American treatment of its Native peoples.
To paraphrase one telling line, Rebecca underscores the play’s title when she wonders how many innocent German girls were captivated in an instantaneous epiphany by the cold look in a Nazi soldier’s eyes that formed empty dark zeros.
Rebecca, who has remained in the closet to her mother and her fellow workers and even denies she’s gay in encounters with her therapist, has her own flash of personal insight, her own zero hour. Lying to herself, or at least suppressing the realization of her sexual identity, she finally comes to terms with herself when she visits a bar and meets up with a dandy intent on hitting on her.
As she plays mind games with her boy toy, she finally admits to him (and herself) that she’d never sleep with him because she’s gay.
Two noteworthy actresses, Erika Cuenca as Rebecca and Daina Michelle Griffith as O, make lovely dramatic music together Griffith is the brasher of the two, full of sexual energy and tension, while Cuenca is more settled and composed. Griffith excels in her multiple roles, getting things right, right down to the accents she’s required to pull off. She also has an ear for comedy, timing her lines just right and hitting the mark on appropriate gestures that are downright chuckle inducing.
Cuenca is rightly cast in the weightier role and vividly communicates her character’s sexual ambivalence, her introspective musings, her moody humanness and her cerebral insights. Both actresses have good erotic chemistry, a command of the dialogue and the energy to pull off their demanding roles.
John Steffenauer as Doug, Rebecca’s bar encounter, is also a strong presence in a diminutive role, and sound designer, Ryan McMasters, does a great job incorporating Hitler speeches in the sound tract that evokes the mood of Nazi Germany along with snippets of beautiful singing from Mozart’s opera, "The Magic Flute," as well as some captivating music in the bar scene I’d like to get my own hands on.
How do you create a set that is appropriate for both the ladies’ shoddy Queens apartment, the phantasmagoric Teutonic scenes on the subway and the therapist’s office? Rich Preffer does just that in an inventive convincing way.
While George’s dark comedy is an incongruous mix of coming-to-terms sexuality, Fascist history and mother-daughter and girl-to-girl relationships gone awry, it succeeds somehow on a dramatic level. Give the playwright credit for even conceiving of such an improbable mishmash of themes. In the long run, however, I don’t think the play has much staying power and will probably fade into the shadows in the not-too-distant future. If you want a bit of theater you won’t find many other places, see it now for the clock is ticking away.
"The Zero Hour" is at the Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie through November 9. Phone 724-873-3576 or visit website www.insideoffthewall.com.


A scene from "The Zero Hour; left to Right: Daina Michelle Griffith and Erika Cuenca: Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

PBT Spends "An Evening with Twyla Tharp

Scene from "In the Upper Room" with Dancers Kumiko Tsuji and Luca Sbrizzi Photo Credit" Rich Sofranko
Since founding her dance company in 1965, Twyla Tharp has become one of the biggest names in the world of dance. Her resume lists more than 129 choreographed dances, six Hollywood movies, four Broadway shows, three books, one Tony Award, two Emmy Awards and nineteen honorary doctorates.
When I discovered that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was opening its 44th season with two Twyla Tharp contemporary ballets, my interest grew exponentially, especially when I learned that one of the ballets in "An Evening with Twyla Tharp" was "Nine Sinatra Songs," a piece I saw in the early 1980s while living in San Francisco.
I distinctly remember intense positive feelings for the work that has to be one of my all-time mind-blowing experiences with the world of dance. Adding to my interest was the discovery that the mixed repertory program also includes celebrated composer, Philip Glass’ "In the Upper Room," a work I am unfamiliar with but one commissioned by Tharp herself. How could you go wrong with two a collaboration between two geniuses?
In preparation for the opening of the three performance run on October 25-27, I posed a series of questions to Hannah Carter, a dancer in the Corps de Ballet, about my much anticipated terpsichorean experience.

Q: "Nine Sinatra Songs" has been described as a blend of ballroom movement and ballet with influences of Tango, Swing and Cha-Cha danced by nine couples set to a "nonet" of Sinatra tunes such as "My Way" and "Strangers in the Night." As a ballet dancer, what transitions do you have to make to adapt to the non-balletic dance elements and what challenges do they pose? Is the work weighted more to the ballroom or ballet style of dance?

A: I think the piece is weighted more to the ballet side with a ballroom theme; there is a lot of waltzing and constant flow of movement. The hardest transition has been dancing in heels instead of pointe shoes. It’s a completely different feeling and at first felt very unstable.


Q: Discounting the two ensemble sections in which the entire cast performs, how were the dancers chosen for seven remaining songs? Randomly or specifically chosen for a particular song because of their relative strengths?

A: As I didn’t cast the piece, I can’t say for sure why each person was chosen for each song apart from what I see when I watch them dance. But, of course, dancers are chosen for roles to which they are best suited; the first song "Softly as I Leave You," for example, requires a very strong man, because there are a number of very difficult and tricky lifts, not only in the pas de deux, but in both renditions of "My Way" as well. The sixth song, "Forget Domani," is very fast and needs two people with quick footwork.


Q: Which of the two pieces on the Tharp program is the most difficult for the dancers to perform and why?

A: Both pieces have been challenging for different reasons. "In the Upper Room" is very cardiovascular, and, in that sense, trying to get the piece up to performance level without looking tired and actually being able to get through it all has been difficult. Finding the right feeling of Tharp’s movement has also been hard as it doesn’t always come naturally to ballet dancers.
The hardest part of "Nine Sinatra Songs" I would say, from a female’s point of view, is definitely putting on the heels, and then having to jump and run, not only forwards, but backwards too. Shelley Washington, our repetiteur, taught our dances on flats first as she wanted us to get a feel for the quality and movement of each piece. It worked because I felt very light and pretty, and as soon as I put on the heels I felt weighted and awkward. But I knew exactly the feeling I needed to find and that has made its way to the surface.


Q: Oscar de la Renta designed the costumes for "Nine Sinatra Songs." Using his designs, were they created in-house by the PBT costume shop or made elsewhere? How do they further the theme or mood of the piece and underscore the choreography and music?

A: The costumes were created in the PBT costume shop following the designs of Oscar de la Renta under the direction of PBT costumier Janet Campbell. The men wear tuxes and the girls each have a different dress to match the theme of her dance. All of them are beautifully made, some long and covered in jewels, others short and colorful. But we all wear very big diamond earrings, stockings and heels. A lot of the choreography was done to show off the dresses, some lifts were designed so that the dresses continue moving after we have stopped or have continued on to the next step, constantly showing the audience how beautiful we look.


Q: How well do "Nine Sinatra Songs" and "In the Upper Room" fit in the same performance? Are they complimentary yet contrasting? Is the choreography an exposition of divergent styles? And what are the Tharpian influences that the audience can spot in both?

A: Twyla Tharp has an extraordinary ability to stretch her knowledge of dance and choreography from the power and velocity of "In the Upper Room" to the elegance and subtleties of "Nine Sinatra Songs." Both are masterpieces in their own right. The dancers feel very different dancing both pieces, and the audience will feel that it has been two different experiences to experience them both.


Q: Have you seen any other of Tharp’s ballets, either live or on film? If so, what other of her ballets do you think would work with the upcoming performances? How true will the PBT performances be to her original choreography and how is it accurately shaped in the rehearsal studio?

A: I haven’t seen any other pieces by Twyla Tharp, though I did watch the Birmingham Royal Ballet (in England) perform "In the Upper Room" when I was at school and loved it. After working on these two pieces, I would love to see more of her work.
The performances are going to be as true to the originals as they could be as we have been extremely fortunate to be taught by repetiteur Shelley Washington, who was an original cast member for both pieces. From the beginning, we have watched videos of the original cast in performances and in the rehearsal studios so that we know exactly what we are aiming for.
It has been incredible to work with Shelley for the past nine weeks, she has amazing energy and has created a fantastic show. For the first time since "In the Upper Room" was created in 1986, an entire second cast is going to get to perform it, and that is down to how hard Shelley has worked with us and how well the company has worked with her.

 
Q: "In the Upper Room" has become a very popular addition to the programming of ballet companies worldwide. To what do you attribute its universal appeal?

A: The music for one. There is so much power behind it; you can feel the adrenaline pumping round your body even just listening to it. When you combine that with her choreography, you have a masterpiece. Also, the fact that there are two different styles of dance in one piece, the ballet dancers and the stompers. It is rare to find a ballet company these days that does not perform contemporary, so it is a great opportunity to show an audience how diverse your company can be.


Note: Hannah Carter of England joins PBT as a member of the Corps de Ballet for the 2013-2014 season. Carter graduated with honors from The Royal Ballet School in London, where she had the opportunity to dance in a number of company productions and school performances.

Prior to coming to the United States, Carter danced professionally with Estonian National Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet, and performed in productions, including "Romeo and Juliet," "Swan Lake," "Coppelia," "The Nutcracker," "La Sylphide" and Balanchine’s "Who Cares?" Her repertoire also includes "Three Muskateers," "La Bayadere," "Giselle," "Firebird," and "The Sleep-ing Beauty."

Twyla Tharp been awarded the Vietnam Veterans of America President's Award, the 2004 National Medal of the Arts and many grants including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

For tickets for PBT’s an Evening with Twyla Tharp, phone 412-456-6666 or visit website
www.pbt.org.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" - The Ghost of Chekhov Found in Bucks County


Left to Right:  Karl Glusman, Helena Ruoti, Amirah Vann, Harry Bouvy, Sheila McKenna, Hayley Nielsen
Photo credit:  Suellen Fitzsimmons


   
    The thing that often intrigues me about theater and entertainment in general is what I call selective comic stimulation. Why is it that some people love say, Seinfeld, South Park, and Workaholics, popular TV shows I try to avoid every chance I get, yet disdain Chris Rock, Daniel Tosh, Family Guy and Steven Colbert’s celebrated interviews with our nation’s congressmen, which I find hilarious?
The same polarity seemed to be working one Friday evening when I sat through Christopher Durang’s "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," now getting a staging at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s bustling South Side. There, I found myself engulfed by an audience that laughed wholeheartedly at jokes and lines that merely brought a wry smile to my face, yet failed to respond, save for a few like-minded folk, at ticklish puns that got my belly chortling convulsively with laughter.
Humor disparity be damned, Durang seems to have plugged plenty of hilarity into VSMS, as I like to call his 2012 Tony Award winner for Best Play, enough to tickle the funny bone of every type of comedy aficianado.
Never mind that the play is set in a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the characters are mostly out of Chekhov with names like Vanya, Sonia and Misha thrust on them by their community theater-loving parents and themes like the pending loss of their ancestral home and its scant collection of cherry trees. (do these ring a bell Chekhov fans?).
The comedy begins benignly enough, with siblings Vanya (Harry Bouvy) and Sonia (Sheila McKenna) dourly taking their morning coffee on their back porch, delightfully bantering as they go about their early morning rituals. While waiting for the arrival of a blue heron, a good omen they feel, that comes daily to feast on their pond’s frogs, they get Cassandra (Amirah Vann) instead, who arrives like a bolt of lightning No ordinary cleaning lady, this fury-like seer has the gift of precognition, and, like her Trojan namesake, she professes a future no one pays mind to.
Unexpected arrivals in the form of the third sibling, Masha (Helena Ruoti), and her peppy, narcissistic boy toy half her age, add even more spice to the comic stew. A contrast to her brother and sister, who’ve spent their entire lives living at home and taking care of their now deceased parents, Masha, an aging film star who’s lost some of her looks but none of her theatrical flair, has led a glamorous, exciting life.
Despite the advance of time, Masha’s managed to latch on to Spike (Karl Glusman), a youthful stud with exhibitionist tendencies, who seems to relish showing off his body and discarding his clothes down to his black boxers every chance he gets.
Before long Spike, whose performance reminds me of Ashton Kutcher in one of his early Nikon television ads, meets Nina (echoes of a character in the Seagull, anyone?), a neighboring waif with a fondness for foreign movies and Beatles’ music. With all the characters finally introduced, things get even more frenetic as they prepare for a costume party, Masha going as Snow White, Vanya as her dwarf, Grumpy, Spike as her Prince Charming and Sonia as Maggie Smith playing the Evil Queen in Snow White. (Durang manages to keep it funny without getting silly).
Amidst the Act Two shenanigans look for a couple of lengthy monologue gems. The first gets a command performance by McKenna, who carries on a hilarious, wonderfully nuanced phone conversation with an admirer she met at the party. The other eclipses even her fine work when Bouvy creates something I’ve never before seen in theater.
For several electrifying minutes, he rants on all sorts of nostalgic topics as he chastises Spike for texting during the reading of his play. His speech is non-stop and a Herculean labor of memorization, delivered with a rapid rhythm that takes your breath away. To catch his every word, the audience seems to hold back its laughter, compressing it inward until the end of his speech, whet it’s released with both pent up laughter and a well-deserved round of hearty applause.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh through November 3. Phone 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatrecompany.org.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Helsinki - A Baltic Beauty


Sibelius Monument in Helsinki


On my first day in Helsinki, I battled jet lag and hot temperatures and headed for Suomenlinna Island Fortress, whose construction started in 1748 when Sweden ruled the area. To get to the UNESCO World Heritage site, cited as a prime example of European military architecture, I caught a ferry at bustling Market Square where vendors sell all sorts of produce and seafood and the inhabitants like to sit and enjoy a Keralian pie or coffee and a local rendition of the doughnut.
As my boat slipped away from its dock, I was impressed with the number of big cruise ships docked in port, then readied my camera for some great shots of the cityscape from the upper deck.
The sea around Helsinki is dotted by close to 340 islands, some large, some no bigger that a pick-up truck, which must have proved problematic for early seafarers. The ferry, however, had no trouble navigating the rock strewn waters, and 15 minutes or so later, it docked at the island fortress, one of Finland’s most popular attractions.
It was a pleasure to be able to walk along cobblestone streets in the shadow of the crenulated stone battlements without being distracted by auto traffic. Actually a town of 350 year-round residents, Suomenlinna shares its historic stone bastions with a number of artist shops, museums and cafes.
To see much of the fortress, including the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard, the pink-plastered jetty barracks, the extensive Zander bastion and the 1854 Russian church (now functioning as a Lutheran house of worship), plan to do a bit of walking and allow yourself at least three hours, more if you linger in the museums.
Back in town, expansive Senate Square and its surrounding buildings are the oldest part of central Helsinki. Much of the square’s Neoclassic architecture resembles that of St. Petersburg because, after the Russian emperor annexed Finland, he commissioned the same architect, Carl Engel, to work on construction that previously worked in what was then the Russian capital.
Massive Helsinki Cathedral dominates the square, its series of stairs a popular place for the younger crowd to sit and socialize. The square is also a point of departure for hop-on, hop-off bus tours. After a quick look at the 1868 Uspenski Cathedral, a green domed, red brick building that claims to be the largest Orthodox edifice in western Europe, I boarded a bus and headed to the unique Temppeliaukio Church.
Starting in the early 1930s, plans called for blasting the church out of native bedrock in the Toolo section of town World War Two brought things to a standstill, but the "Church of the Rock" finally opened in 1969. As many as a half million visitors get to enter the church, cited as one of the city’s most important architectural treasures, gaze up at tits copper dome and watch as the sunlight pours through the line of windows beneath the dome.
Another impressive site, the Sibelius Monument dates back to 1967 and honors Finland’s most heralded composers. An abstract structure made of a wave of 600 hollow steel pipes, the monument tries to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music and also allows visitors to interact with the structure by making sounds and echoes in the pipes.
Helsinki hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics, with most of the games centered in the Olympic Stadium, considered by many to be the world’s most beautiful. Originally intended to host the 1940 Olympics, the stadium’s construction began in 1934, but World War Two prompted the cancellation of the games. Today, the stadium’s 238-foot tall tower is open to visitors and boasts some of the best views of the city.
Culture vultures might want to visit the Ateneum, Finland’s national art gallery, located across from the Central Railway station, itself one of Finland’s most renowned buildings, designed by Eliel Saarinen. In addition to showcasing Finnish art from the 1750s and Western art starting with the mid 1800s, the Ateneum was showing at the time of my visit a special exhibit of paintings from the Presidential Palace, now undergoing a renovation. The exhibit will be up through February 9
Besides being a city of beauty and grace, Helsinki has been designated one of the world’s safest cities, and "Monocle" magazine ranked it "the world’s most livable." In my brief two day stay, I only managed to scratch the surface of what there is to see in the cosmopolitan city on the Baltic.
Helsinki cathedral

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Aida" Marches Triumphantly into Pittsburgh Opera’s 75th Season

Aida Watches as Amneris Crowns Radames: Photo Credit David Bachman
Opera is by nature theatrical spectacle, and as far as spectacle goes, "Aida" is near the top of the list.
Giuseppi Verdi composed this lengthy opera on an invitation from the Khedive of Egypt as part of the opening of the Suez Canal, and the maestro ingratiatingly responded by setting the exotic work in ancient Egypt. To guarantee splendor, he included in the regal cast of characters the Pharoah, his daughter, the Princess Amneris, the High Priest Ramfis and Radames, the dazzling military leader who leads his country against its Ethiopian enemies. For such a stately crew, you’d expect some eye-catching sets and costumes, and Pittsburgh Opera, now staging the work at the Benedum Center as the opener of its 75th season, has seemingly gone all out on both counts.
The opening set, the palace of the king, got a good bit of ahhhs from the audience bedazzled by both its massive size and the sumptuousness of Claude Girard and Bernard Uzan’s design. The following scene, the temple of Vulcan is almost as impressive with its brazier lit exterior. After segueing into Amneris bedchamber, the audience next gets a good taste of what the good life in a palace is like as it sees the splendidly clad princess surrounded by courtesans and fanned by two hugely tall ostrich fans held by a couple of youthful servant boys while dancers (from Pittsburgh’s Attack Theatre) entertain the princess with snippets of choreography
The crown of "Aida’s" splendor come in the form of the Triumphal March, which closes the first third of the opera. The march, one of the most spectacular scenes of any opera, begins with a quartet of trumpeters, hired for the occasion by Pittsburgh Opera, exploding in fanfare from the top of a parapet. (The trumpeters later also appear in the Benedum lobby to announce the end of each of the opera’s two intermissions).
The parade of victors in the Triumphant March includes two horses on loan from the Allegheny County Police Mounted Patrol Unit, a tethered hawk or falcon, a bevy of greyhounds, even a long pale white Burmese python wreathing around one marchers body marching along with the victors, which include guest star, former Pirate pitcher, Bob Friend. (Opening night saw Steeler quarterback Charlie Batch cast in Friend’s quick cameo appearance with Franco Harris and Phil Borque to follow on October 18 and 20 performances respectively).
Another knock-out set opened Act Two, an evening scene along the Nile dominated by a glowing golden full moon and the gently gliding boat bearing Amneris and the High Priest.
While the visual spectacle of the production was engrossing, the aural spectacle was equally exalted, starting with the polished sound of the orchestra led by Antony Walker. Like a tossed stone skipping across the water, Verdi’s score offered a series of gorgeous arias, beginning with Radames’ stunning "Celeste Aida, forma divina," sung brilliantly by tenor Carl Tanner, then moving on to an impressive trio sung by Radames, Amneris (mezzo soprano Elizabeth Bishop) and Aida (soprano Latonia Moore).
As one who is particularly fond of Verdi’s operatic composition for chorus, I relished in the full-bodied sound of the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus, which seems to get better with time. Who could resist the appeal of the mesmerizing invocation to the god Phtha by the chorus of priestesses, the rousing Gloria all’ Egitto" that heralds the Triumphant March or the mystical sounding "Spirito del Nume sovra noi discendi," the call on the gods to witness the justice of the death sentence by living entombment handed down to Radames?
As the title character, Moore gets my vote for the best voice of the evening, soaring lyrically over the torrent of sound from the chorus, blending proportionately in her duets and trios and captivating in arias like "O Numi, splendete." A polished actress, Moore conveyed explicitly her extremely conflicted emotions brought on by her irreconcilable loyalty to her father, the king of her native country, and her love for Radames, her country’s enemy.
As Amneris, Bishop is equally anguished, torn between her desire for revenge, which can only end in Radames’ execution because of his preference for Aida, and her deep felt love for him.
The opera ends dramatically when Radames is sent to his death. Sealed inside an air-tight, underground chamber, he finds that Aida has hidden away inside to share his fate. While the couple sing the tender duet "O terra, adio," as a farewell to life on earth, Amneris is seen standing forlornly in anguish above them. As the curtain falls, she sings a prayer to the gods, supplicating the them for peace as the chorus softly chants their invocation to Phtha.
In "Aida," splendor meets art and heightened emotion wrapped around gorgeous sound.
Remaining performances are at 8 p.m. on October 18 and at 2 p.m. on October 20. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or visit website pittsburghopera.org.

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Our Town" Opens PPT Season with Home Grown Production

Left to right: Erin Lindsey Krom, Patrick Cannon and Tom Atkins in a scene from "Our Town." Credit PPT
"Our Town" Opens PPT Season with Home Grown Production
Pittsburgh Public Theater artistic director, Ted Pappas, gives, as one of the reasons he’s opening the theater’s 2013 "Masterpiece" season with "Our Town," the fact that the 1938 American classic is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its premier.
Unaware of the play’s milestone anniversary, I had my own reason for wanting to see what some might consider slow-moving, archaic and peopled by characters so out of step with contemporary life. (But are they really)?
I first encountered "Our Town" as a teen in high school where it was included as required reading in an English class. I remember being transported to a different realm and the homespun, nostalgic mood it evoked so well. The reading assignment proved one of the first things that got me hooked on literature and theater.
More decades later than I’d care to admit, I deeply desired to revisit emotionally the small New Hampshire town of 1901 Grover’s Corners and its "ordinary" residents currently being resurrected at the Public. With years of hindsight behind me, I was amazed at how effectively my original mood and feelings about the play resurfaced with a combination of delight, nostalgia and a touch of melancholy, evoked by the third act’s haunting message.
I entered the theater, scanning the stage, barren except for a perfectly-inscribed, white circle on the floor, wondering how the younger members of the audience, accustomed to mega-productions with elaborate mechanical stagings and huge budgets, would take to the period piece with a minimal set and barebone props. I’d planned to query a few at both intermissions just to sate my curiosity, but, alas, circumstances prevented me from doing so.
Pappas directs the play that earned author, Thornton Wilder, the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes. Thematically, at least as far as the title goes, he’s also enlisted a cast of 24 made up entirely of Pittsburgh actors or actors with strong Pittsburgh connections. Our town, indeed!
Seasoned actor, Tom Atkins, returns for his 18th production at the Public in the focal role at the Stage Manager, a Virgil to the audience’s Dante, invitingly leading us through the everyday life of unremarkable people, giving us a glimpse of their aspirations, budding romances, shortcomings, significant events and, ultimately, their demises.
Two small tables, each surrounded by a scant three chairs, serve as the microcosmic setting that reflects a universal message, that humans fail to stop and smell the roses (or heliotrope, as one of the female characters encourages her preoccupied husband), to live in the present, to cherish the people they share their lives with and to notice the smaller, often overlooked things that are wondrous in themselves but blurred and buried by indifference in deference to the flotsam and jetsam of quotidian concerns.
Taking place over a 13 year period starting in 1901, "Our Town" is segmented into three acts, simplistically titled "Daily Life," "Love and Marriage" and "Death and Eternity." We watch as the neighboring Gibbs and Webb families arise in the morning and go through the same daily routines as do millions of others around the world. Their world, however, feels a bit easier, more benign and free of unsavory characters (backbiters, gossips, con men, connivers and the like), where everyone greets one another with a welcoming, unhurried smile and doors are kept unlocked day and night.
As Dr. Gibbs and his wife, John Shepard and Bridget Connors are wholesome parents and a devoted married couple who manage to find contentment living in a small New England town. (Mrs. Gibbs, however, does show a bit of itchy malcontent when she proposes a trip to a country "where no one speaks English or even wants to.)" Their counterparts, the neighborly Webbs, (Marc Epstein and Cary Anne Spear) show a humorous bent that comes across so delightfully in a kitchen scene in which father Webb gives his future son-in-law some nuptial advise on the morning of his wedding.
Act Two centers around the budding romance and awkward courtship of young George Gibbs (played with boyish charm by Patrick Cannon) and the even younger but, perhaps wiser, Emily Webb (played endearingly by Erin Lindsay Krom. From her performance, I see her as a possible candidate for a future role as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet").
The mood of Act Three changes abruptly darker when the scene moves to the town’s hilltop graveyard. There the dead folk are spiritually present observing the comings and goings of the latest internment, conversing with one another and leading the way toward the expression of the play’s ultimate philosophical message.
This comes at the end when Emily realizes that life’s everyday bounty of experiences and hidden wonders should be valued, even cherished. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone manages really to live life while still alive he responds sagely with a "No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some."
After viewing PPT’s masterful production, perhaps some in the audience will do the same - at least for a while, while the play’s theme lingers in their minds.
"Our Town" is at Pittsburgh Public Theater through October 27. Phone 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org.