Weston’s ‘Our Town’ proves traditional but personal

Emily (Julie Benko) and George (Vichet Chum) getting married by the preacher (Christopher Lloyd) in Weston Playouse’s “Our Town.”(Photo by Hubert Schriebl)

WESTON — “Our Town” is Every Town according to the celebratory Weston Playhouse production that opened Saturday — and, appropriately, a paean to the theater. Vermont’s oldest professional theater company opened its 2018 main stage season with Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer-winning classic, telling the story of the fictional American small town, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between 1901 and 1913, through the everyday lives of its residents. Directed by Steve Stettler in his swan song at Weston, it paid tribute to the theater as Wilder had intended, and to this theater, as it stars TV and film star Christopher Lloyd and other Weston Playhouse veterans. Making it a universal experience and more of today, Stettler cast across racial and ethnic lines. On a nearly bare stage, as Wilder indicates, Lloyd as the Stage Manager narrates the story of the Gibbs in three stages of their lives, a single day in 1901, 1904 and 1913. In particular it represents Emily Webb and George Gibbs as teens, getting married and facing their future in a pretty universal story that seems fresh every time it’s told. Eschewing his usual caricature roles, Lloyd was a personable and quietly powerful Stage Manager. Although he took the first act to warm up, Lloyd turned this iconic role into his own, making it feel personal with his intimate interaction with the characters, wit and charm. But was in the third and final act that Lloyd delivered a beautiful and heart-wrenching summation of life. As Emily, Julie Benko was responsible for much of the production’s joy and heartbreak, irresistibly portraying three stages of the girl’s life. The final flashback was particularly heart wrenching. She was complemented by Vichet Chum’s George who, despite some superciliousness in the beginning, made a convincing mate. Making the home heartwarming yet real were the mothers, played sympathetically by Christine Toy Johnson as Mrs. Webb and Brandy Zarle as Mrs. Gibbs. The less important fathers, Raphael Peacock as Dr. Gibbs and Tim Rush as Mr. Webb, were also personable. In fact, there were no really weak performances among the 18-member cast, with many of them doubling as two or more characters. Weston regulars will recognize a number of the theater’s longtime veterans. Taking Wilder’s detailed instructions a step further there were virtually no actual props, so the actors quite successfully mimed them while other actors provided the sound effects. They also created the music, singing or playing instruments, directed by Jake Turski with original composition by Daniel Kluger. Wilder calls for a virtually bare stage, and Weston’s staging by Kristen Robinson provided nothing more than a couple of crude tables, two ladders and some chairs. Kirche Leigh Zeile’s costumes represented the actors’ own clothing with a few additions. It was Jiyoun Chang’s lighting that created atmosphere and drama — after all, it’s supposed to be a theater. Interestingly after the first two acts, staged austerely per Wilder, Stettler added synthesized sound and eerie lighting in the third act for an ethereal, even surreal world. Save for some extraneous door openings and other symbolic details, the effect underscored the power of the already powerful finale. Stettler, along with colleagues Malcolm Ewen and Tim Fort, are retiring at the end of this season after 30 years as artistic directors of Vermont’s most successful theater. Susanna Gellert will join them in July, becoming executive artistic director at the end of this season. Stettler’s “Our Town” is a very personal one, for him and for Weston Playhouse. Not only does it give Wilder’s masterpiece its due, it’s marvelous storytelling.   Weston Playhouse Weston Playhouse Theatre Company presents Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” June 21-July 7 at Weston Playhouse, off Main Street (Route 100) in Weston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tickets are $49-$60 ($20-$40 for June 21 preview); call 802-824-5288, or go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.

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