There’s a phenomenon that happens in really good theatre – community or professional – that goes far beyond hitting marks and reciting lines.
The conviction of the actor, the playwright’s words, skilful lighting and sympathetic direction can fuse into a form of hypnotic alchemy in which the audience – imagination totally engaged – experiences something that is much more than the sum of the parts; a hyper-reality that transcends physical limitations of settings, props or costumes.
It’s something that every passionate theatre practitioner strives to achieve and every regular theatre-goer looks for, and director and actor Rebecca Walters, who is helming Peninsula Productions’ upcoming production of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town (Aug. 9 to 24, the Black Box Theatre in Centennial Park), knows it well.
“It’s a real sort of magical feeling when you see that happen in front of your eyes,” she said.
It’s also the kind of experience Wilder was aiming for when he created this Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘metatheatrical’ piece in the late 1930s – in keeping with his specific instruction in the script, the play is a deliberate work of minimalism in which all the effects are achieved by actors working with an empty stage, minimal props, two tall stepladders, a few chairs and a paper lantern for a moon.
“It seems not an unusual thing to us now, but for the time it was really, really radical,” Walters said, acknowledging that the playwright was seeking an emotional honesty that did not rely on complex artifice.
“For him, it was bit of a reaction against the very naturalistic theatre of the time, in which everything seemed to be set in living rooms, with lots of furniture and properties and costumes – a sort of photo-realism.”
In telling the story of Our Town – and conjuring up the fictional “Everytown” of Grover’s Corners and its inhabitants in the period from 1901 to 1913 – Walters, Peninsula Productions’ associate artistic director, is calling on a versatile group of eight actors to bring to life some 22 characters among them.
“The cast is fantastic,” she said. “Some of them are just out of Studio 58 or Douglas College or UVic and others are more seasoned actors – they’re eager and enthusiastic and game to try different things.”
The play – for many years a staple of high school and university drama programs – has not been produced frequently in the Lower Mainland in recent decades.
That’s not because Wilder’s witty – and often touching – meditation on the nature of human existence lacks resonance today, Walters said, but mainly because the size of cast specified by the playwright has inevitably been considered a cost factor.
Fortunately, she said, while there are seven major parts, most of the secondary roles have only one or two lines, which has allowed most of the Peninsula actors to demonstrate their versatility in the current production by tackling a couple additional roles.
For instance, Hailey Conner, playing the key ingénue role of Emily, also gets the opportunity to play for comedy as the wordy local historian Professor Willard, Walters said.
“It’s nice to see her play someone so sincere and sweet, but also come on and play this doddering old professor,” she added, noting that Conner and David Underhill, as George Gibbs, make a charming pair as the young sweethearts.
“We see them go from the early teenage years to young adulthood and they both do that subtle aging very well,” she said.
Also featured in the show are Colleen Byberg, Ryan Kniel, Damion LeClair, Katie Voravong and Elliot Wesley and Michelle Morris as Wilder’s principal character – the omniscient, angel-like Stage Manager.
Like any magician, Wilder introduces his particular brand of legerdemain by first focusing our attention on the real and the ordinary. Indeed, one of the most celebrated features of Our Town that made it stand out in its time, as Walters pointed out, is Wilder’s breaking of the ‘fourth wall’ – the theatrical setting is openly acknowledged and the Stage Manager addresses the audience directly and comments on the action throughout.
“Michelle does that beautifully – she’s very comfortable and engaging in conversing with the audience,” Walters said.
And that very directness is the key to lulling the audience into a receptive state for what is to follow, she said.
By turns funny, tragic, witty, thoughtful and deeply moving, Our Town works its spell by capturing not only snapshots of some major events in the characters’ lives but also the inconsequential little moments between them that may be, ultimately, even more significant, Walters said.
Before we know it, she said, Wilder has involved us in these lives; in the joys and sorrows, the trivial pleasures and hopes and dreams and triumphs, and the inevitable heartache of loss.
“It seems so simple at first, but underneath it are all these beautiful, profound thoughts that he captures so well,” she noted, adding that while some of the references in the play have dated, Wilder’s underlying message is timeless.
“A lot of it is about how we go through life and don’t see that the little day-to-day things are the most beautiful and memorable of all. It’s really, really important for us today to be aware of these moments, to realize that this is what it means to be alive.”
A vehicle for the skill of the actors, Walters said, Our Town is also ideally suited to showcasing the versatility of Peninsula Productions’ Black Box Theatre space, newly equipped with professional, but portable, lighting in the capable hands of lighting designer Matthew Bissett (also a director in his own right).
Walters said that what she loves most of all, as a director, and in her role in Peninsula Productions, is being able to expose local audiences to different kinds of plays and theatrical experiences they might not otherwise have seen, Our Town among them.
“It’s funny, because when I first read it and saw it, it was in university when I was in my early 20s. The production was good, and I knew it was a beautiful play, but I find that as time goes by I have come to realize just how good it is.
“I’ve read it a bunch of times, and still pretty much every day something new about the script jumps out at you. I regularly tear-up during rehearsals.”
The Black Box Theatre is located in Centennial Park (14600 North Bluff Rd).
Tickets are at brownpapertickets.com; for more information on show times, visit penisulaproductions.org