Our Town is a triumph for the STC

September 29, 2010

By Darryn King
For Time Out Sydney

our-town.jpgIn a little corner of the stage just outside the proscenium arch, a man, all smiles, watches the audience as they find and take their seats in the Drama Theatre. The houselights go down, he moves downstage-centre and addresses us directly: "This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder and produced by the Sydney Theatre Company."

The man is the all-seeing, all-knowing Stage Manager of Our Town (Darren Gilshenan) - our friendly narrator and tour guide to Grover's Corners. Grover's Corners is the very picture of that quaint and distinctly American brand of nostalgia: a sleepy little town at the beginning of the 20th century where no-one locks their doors. The milkman and paperboy do their rounds in the morning, the local constable does his round in the evening, and youngsters Emily Webb (Maeve Dermody) and George Gibbs (Robin Goldsworthy) grow up, fall in love and live their lives before our eyes.

The good people of Grover's Corners are duller than most, we're told - and, like people anywhere and everywhere, all they're doing really is going about their largely unremarkable existences. They're born, they marry (generally), and then... well, as the Stage Manager puts it, I reckon you can guess.

There's something mischievous about STC's promotional images for this production: blue skies, autumn trees, grazing dairy cows, long morning shadows. Thornton Wilder's script specifies that Our Town is to be performed without resorting to such frivolous elements as scenery, sets and props, and this production from director Iain Sinclair (mostly) complies. It relies instead on the "sheer force of acting" (Sinclair's words) and, when there's a cast of this calibre, it's a force to be reckoned with. Great performances from all the cast (but especially from Gilshenan, Anita Hegh, Susan Prior and Frank Whitten) bring Grover's Corners vividly to life - no backcloth necessary.

Whether or not you know the play, there's little to prepare you for the third, final, inevitable act. It's enough to say, perhaps, that Our Town saves its most stunning moments to the very last and Sinclair captures them beautifully. Also: this time when you take your seats the Stage Manager isn't smiling.

Our Town doesn't just intend to reflect 'life'. It intends for us to reflect on life. At one point, the Stage Manager asks us outright to recall first love - "Will you remember that, please?" - and such is Gilshenan's persuasiveness that we're right there with him. More than any play you're likely to see this year, Our Town is peppered with reminders that we're watching a show. Stage lights are in full view, a member of the cast (seemingly) takes questions from the audience, and there's an onstage foley artist producing everything from the whistle of a distant train to the satisfying 'thwop' of a baseball landing in a catcher's mitt. And, of course, there are the MC stylings of the Stage Manager ("Thank you, ladies. Thank you very much. Now we're going to skip a few hours"). It's a play about what it is to be alive, here and now - and part of its impact is that it continually jolts us into the here and now. There may be more than a hundred years and 10,000 miles between us and the fictional Grover's Corners but, in a way, this is our story, and our town too.

Our Town is a triumph for the STC: as a production as well as a bold choice of programming. It's the kind of show that just might make you see the world differently. When it comes to the theatre, you can't say fairer than that.

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