Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” was performed Homecoming Weekend in our town. It featured cast members from our town, and students and faculty from our university. International film and stage actor/director Arliss Howard starred in and directed the play in the intimate JR Black Box Theatre, a major component of the newly renovated Shaw Center.
Arliss was wonderful as the soft-spoken stage manager who weaves his way in and out of the lives of small-town Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire residents between 1901 and 1913. Arliss has a gentle nature about him, a relaxed yet deeply-reflective manner that fit dead-on with Wilder’s vision for the stage manager to create a slow, easy feel for daily life in Lamoni, I mean, Grover’s Corners. Arliss has been in residence with Graceland’s Theatre Department for six weeks, bestowing students and faculty, local amateur actors, well, our town, with the perfect first production for the JR Theatre. Arliss pays tribute to Shaw Center donors JR and Carol Shaw in his opening monologue.
In a way, though, our town, Lamoni, and our people (a number are cast members) were the stars of the show. Like Grover’s Corners, Lamoni has a slow, easy feel to it. The daily lives of our people are pretty much like those in Grover’s Corners, even though newspapers and milk are no longer delivered to our doors. People like Pam Sherman, our Lamoni Schools’ Nurse (who was wonderful as Mrs. Soames), Mandy and Leigha Kolesik, Margie Foster, Doug Jones and the fresh young faces of Alexandria Mamros and Ella Sutherland; they could have stepped out of Grover’s Corners, but rather they stepped out of Lamoni and joined a solid, 35-member cast including the GU student leads, Jake Kaufman as George Gibbs, and Jessica Gunter as Emily Webb, both who gave inspired performances.
When Jake and Jessica do their homework scene, perched in bedroom windows of houses next door to each other, the new JR Theatre really comes into play. There is a wire ‘tension-grid’ ceiling and catwalk around the top of the theatre. The audience looks up to watch the two young people bantering about math homework, but really speaking of love. And the audience looks up to see the excellent chorus singing from atop the catwalk – angels from above. On the opposite side of the catwalk, musicians play befitting music like “My Old Kentucky Home” during two brief intermissions while superb vintage still-photos intermingle lazily with video and stills of today’s and yesterday’s Lamoni. Thank you Professor Rob Stephens and recent alumna Liz Deegan for compiling this compelling film work. A portal to a visual past opened each time Arliss the stage manager pulled the tall curtain back exposing a luminous, fluttering screen. And, thank you student musicians Patrick Minor, Daniel Harmon and Thomas Krahl for gently providing music that brought that portal to life. Brett Hall’s sound effects also added a nice touch of realism to the minimalist production.
Besides a few small tables and chairs, there is no scenery. This was Thornton Wilder’s vision. He said of his play: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind – not in things, not in scenery.” In so many ways during the production, as cast members move quickly, in the dark, through narrow passageways between seating risers, the JR Theatre itself becomes an important component of the production. The amazing lighting and audio capabilities, the good acoustics, the endless seating possibilities – these are portents of what will be the great Graceland theatre productions of the future. Theatre professor Tracy Salter, who portrayed Mrs. Webb, masterfully as usual, will have much to do with that promising future.
Other faculty members, David Devonis (Dr. Gibbs), Brian White (Mr. Webb) and Gary Heisserer, Dean of our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Constable Warren), each added their singular panache to the production.
Graceland students are very much a part of our town, Lamoni, and it was impressive to see that acting and theatre production work are alive and flourishing at our university. We’ve seen an uptick in enrollment because students want to work in the JR Theatre. This will only increase and it is in great part JR Shaw’s vision: bring students to Graceland to study theatre; get non-theatre majors involved, from all academic disciplines, in the theatre productions; and they will graduate with a more-well-rounded, liberal arts education. It is happening, JR.
Some of the students involved were Claire McClain, Arliss’ understudy, and joined by A Ross Krischel, co-stage managers who seemed to be everywhere at once. Martin Mercer ably portrayed milkman Howie Newsome, reminiscent of characters from the “Red Green” show. Other student standouts included: Leon Howard, Marlee Quirarte, Andrew Sloop, Justin Pontier, Tanner Gard, Steve Hensley and Spencer Bergman. Soprano Anna Rider, with a charming touch, sang loud and clear warnings to the audience to turn off their cell phones and cameras. Several of the actors also sang in the chorus, but others joined them, including Ani Babajanyan, Lauren Mercer Clegg, Kenzie Cox, Lindsay Foster, Marissa Roberts, Hannah Shields and JulieAnn Smith.
Dora Bosnyak was a hard-working stage manager, Kimberly Manuel was scenic designer, Anne Duttlinger was costume designer, Shaw Center Director Jon Whatley was lighting designer and Mitchell Childers was sound operator. Stage, light, costume and makeup crews included Karl Bradford, Alexander Ergo, Karla Fennick, A. Ross Krischel, Joe Lewis, Audrey Lai, Aby Mason, Sarah Murphy, Kurtis L. McKnabb, Marlee Quirarte, Kolt Schnake, Hannah Shields, Steve Thurman and Raven Wilkinson. Cleuzia Navesse, Audrey Lai and Olivia Wagner-Smith served as house managers.
Like the pro that she is, long-time Graceland employee Kathy Templeton handled the box office masterfully, juggling shortages of tickets and helping arrange additional performances.
Wilder wrote “Our Town” in 1937. It won him the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1938. It is both uplifting, and, well, at times depressing. Emily does, after all, die in the end, as do several others who we hear spouting off from their graves. It is a play that was banned in the Soviet Union in 1946 because Stalin thought it would incite mass suicide. “Our Town” captures the routine of daily, small-town life in its reality, and, let’s admit, its sometimes banal ordinariness. At one point Arliss the stage manager talks about how some people are made for small-town life and maybe some aren’t: seems like the people of Grover’s Corners, and Lamoni, are. So are Graceland students, even though many hail from a megalopolis.
Arliss Howard, the people of Lamoni and Graceland want to thank you for devoting a piece of your busy life to a production that will not soon be forgotten. We hope you enjoyed your personal reprise back to small-town life. We certainly enjoyed having you.
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