Sunday, September 20, 2015

Our Town—Portland Center Stage—Pearl District

“Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

This classic American play about small-town life is written by Thornton Wilder and directed by Rose Riordan. It is playing at their space, 128 NW 11th Ave., through October 11th.  For more information, go to their site at or call 503-445-3700.

The Past is just that—passed.  But that doesn’t stop people from waxing nostalgic about it, as it’s often fond memories of the salad days of our Youth:  A time that we frolicked in the innocence and magic of those good ole days, a simpler era of dreams and discoveries.  Not unlike the tale of Anne and her adventures at Green Gables and on the island of Avonlea or
Ray Bradbury’s beautiful poetic tribute to his childhood in Dandelion Wine. These are, indeed, wonderful tales, but hidden from us at the time was also the real adult world of prejudice, war, pressures of the “rat race,” and trepidation about the future.  So when we hark back to  memories of bliss, what we are really looking for is the “Garden of Eden,” Paradise, a time when all was at peace and beautiful.  And what Wilder has done, brilliantly, is to show us both worlds, the pleasure and the pain, of growing up in small-town America, in this case Grover Mills, New Hampshire, at the beginning of the 1900’s.

The story is bittersweet, as a Stage Manager (Shawn Fagan), weaves the tale of a small town, mainly two families, of the Gibbs and the Webb’s, and lets us see life on a simpler scale, but also holding it up to an urbane world, reflecting in a mirror, darkly.  He is the god (probably Wilder himself) of this creation and tells us many details of rural life there.  There is the dedicated Dr. Gibbs (Paul Cosentino) and his forward-thinking wife, Mrs. Gibbs (Gina Daniels).  They also have two children, George (Sathya Sridharan), a star, high-school athletic, and his younger, precocious sister, Rebecca (Hailey Kilgore).

Next door to them are the Editor of the town newspaper, Mr. Webb (John D. Haggerty), a fountain of knowledge of the goings-on of the town-folk, and his industrious wife, Mrs. Webb (Tina Chilip).  They also have two children, the studious teenager, Emily (Nikki Massoud) and her younger brother, Wally (Henry Martin).  It should go without saying that Emily and George are “meant” for each other.  There are other townies such as the drunken choirmaster, Simon (Gary Norman), two town gossips, Mrs. Soames (Sharonlee McClean) and her lady friend (Laura Faye Smith), the know-it-all, Professor Willard (Leif Norby), and others, but the story focuses mainly on the two “star-crossed” young lovers and their families.

It follows George and Emily over 13 years as they become friends, talking from their second-story bedrooms to each other on moonlit nights (I, too, did this, at their age, across a driveway to a neighbor girl named, Julie.  Those fanciful hours we wiled away were precious).  Then comes the fateful meeting when they realize they are in love, to their marriage and, finally, to the death of one of them in their mid-twenties.  The final act is of those who have died, relating their thoughts, not unlike Edgar Lee Masters’, Spoon River Anthology, in which the departed reflect on Life.

And, maybe, it is in these moments, where the full message of Wilder’s story is revealed, that we should hold on dearly to those fleeting moments in our short lives that are precious to us and accomplish all the good we can, connect with each other and, when the end does come, know that we have done the best we can with what we have in the little time allotted to us.

The play, as written, is done on an essentially bare stage, with the Stage Manager setting the scenes with his narration.  Personal props and much of the action is mimed and only chairs are used to create acting spaces.  It is a wise move to follow this lead, which Riordan has done well, even giving the illusion of souls floating between the Hereafter and Earth, as if waiting for the next stage in their evolution.  It also allows us to create our own memories of such an existence, as the Stage Manager suggests, so that we are fully enveloped into the story.

The cast is mixed racially and culturally, as it should be, and I applaud them for this, as casting should be blind and only the best actor should be cast for the part, without regard for ethnicity, age, gender, etc.  Fagan underplays the part of the Stage Manager, which is as it should be, only asserting authority when the story needs to move forward.  Well realized.  The two young lovers, Sridharan and Massoud, are very believable as their relationship grows.  They certainly capture the spirit of Youth and awkward naivety in the teen years.  The rest of the cast is equally good and, having some well-known Portland actors in supporting roles, adds to the creative weight of this production.

One more point (as I ascent my soapbox) and for those of you who have read past reviews of mine, will recognize my tirade.  There is a line in the show fore-shadowing a warning, perhaps, for future generations, for people to really look at each other and to realize Life while they live it!  This does not mean on a video screen.  It means listening to the crickets at night, admiring the mysterious moon, gazing at the amazing stars, smelling the flowers on a dewy morning and connecting, one-on-one, touchable, to the important people in your life, for it is, as Wilder reports, too short, so make the best of it …and get off those frigging screens, as artificial life is no real life at all!

I recommend this production.  If you do see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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