Los Angeles Theater Review: OUR TOWN (Pasadena Playhouse)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on October 3, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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THE UNBEARABLE CURSE OF BEING

I remember reading Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker review of Gypsy when Tyne Daly first starred as Mama Rose. She described the experience of not being sure beforehand whether she had ever seen the show. The songs were so familiar—of course she had seen some production or other at some point. Right? What made her realize she had not, was experiencing its anthems to positivity performed in their proper context, and seeing the dread and horror on the other characters’ faces when Rose sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” She described it as a revelation. Oh, that’s why everyone loves this show so much.

The Deaf West Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse production of Our Town provoked the same reaction in me. I thought I must have seen the show sometime. (My husband wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have even been in a production of it in high school.) But no. The cumulative, surging power of the experience made me realize that while I had heard monologues from it in school, I had never actually seen the play. My own “aha” moment of, Oh, that’s why everyone loves this show so much.

Constructed so simply, it’s hard to grasp just from the text its many intertwined layers. And director Sheryl Keller seems to unearth even more, utilizing Deaf West’s pioneering style of combining American Sign Language with spoken English to underscore the deep universality of Thorton Wilder’s most famous work. Voices sometimes come from the actor who is speaking, sometimes from another actor; and signing can come from the actor who is speaking or from another actor. The gender and ethnic diversity of the casting adds to the sense of shared feeling. So much is communicated, it overwhelms the senses, mesmerizing us as the community of souls come alive, even in death.

Deaf West Artistic Director DJ Kurs gives further context by including a program note about signing communities in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, further evoking the insularity of small town life in a place like Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. I wonder what Wilder would think. I imagine this production would be startling to him at first—but my guess is that since he could wrap his head around his own character, the Stage Manager, embracing past, present, and future tense within single lines of dialogue, he would have richly appreciated the way his vision has been interpreted faithfully, but with a modern sense of kinship and community spirit.

The cast is excellent, with lovely individual moments captured within what seems like a single creative organism. Jane Kaczmarek wryly plays the Stage Manager as a shared role with several signing actors—most often, and most notably, with the inestimable talents of Troy Kotsur. It’s a hugely successful melding of sensibilities and modes of communication. They are both expressive, nuanced, and tender. Dot-Marie Jones does a sweet, funny, and very memorable take on the “I always cry at weddings” scene, that takes on new meaning when she remembers it in the third act. And Sandra Mae Frank and Sharon Pierre-Louis are especially vivid as Emily.

This is Pasadena Playhouse’s 100th season. They presented Our Town in 1939, a year after its Broadway opening, on the same stage, with the same bare back wall. That has a resonance entirely in keeping with this great American play. Thorton Wilder was a miniaturist in the best sense. In a 1937 letter to Gertrude Stein, he told her, “I am writing the most beautiful little play you can imagine.” He was right.

photos by Jenny Graham

Our Town
Pasadena Playhouse
in association with Deaf West Theatre
39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena
Tues-Friday at 8; Sat at 4 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
(check schedule for variances)
ends on October 22, 2017
for tickets, call 626-356-7529
or visit Pasadena Playhouse

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