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Taking a trip to Grover’s Corners – ‘Our Town’

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The wedding scene in The Grand's production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." The wedding scene in The Grand's production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." (Photo courtesy of The Grand/Nick Navarre)

ELLSWORTH – Few works of dramatic literature capture the specialness inherent to the small-town experience quite like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” While the world has certainly grown larger in some ways (and smaller than others), there’s no denying the lasting impact of the piece.

People here in Maine understand this play as well as anybody and better than most, so it makes sense that Nick Turner – Executive Director of the Grand in Ellsworth – would choose this timeless tale of a close-knit community as his first directorial effort as part of the organization. The show is set to run on the Grand stage through Oct. 29.

“Our Town” offers a look at the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire in the early years of the 20th century. It is a sweetly sleepy place, populated by salt-of-the-earth folks who are as stolidly solid as the granite underpinnings of the land on which they live. It's a snapshot of a simpler time; a time without hustle and bustle, a time when front doors were always unlocked and people knew all of their neighbors.

The story is steered by the narration of the Stage Manager (Jim Pendergist), a figure both of and outside the world of the play. He is the one who introduces us to the people of Grover's Corners. Our focus is on two families; the Gibbs family and the Webb family.

Town doctor Frank Gibbs (Randall Simons) and his wife Julia (Tracy Green) are raising two children, George (Brady Kelley) and Rebecca (Sophie Torrance). Next door are Charles Webb (Joshua Torrance), publisher of the town paper, and his wife Myrtle (Jennifer Torrance), who are raising two kids of their own - Emily (Aliza Dwyer) and Wally (Noah Torrance).

Over the course of three acts, we watch as the relationship between George and Emily grows from childhood friendship into teenaged romance and on into marriage. All the while, we see familiar small-town characters popping up all around them. There's milkman Howie Newsome (Roman Perez) with his ever-present horse Bessie. There's the drunken church organist and choir leader Simon Stimson (Paul Markosian). You've got paperboy Joe Crowell (Zachary Spreng), patrolling policeman Constable Warren (Benjamin Speed) and the gossipy Mrs. Soames (Rachel Kohrman Ramos).

And then there are the many other people who populate this the community – living and dead alike – played memorably by ensemble members Paul Allen, Deb Ashmore, Nicole Cardano, Nolan Domagala, Abbie Green, Savannah Hasham, Rose Kazmierczak, Emory Robotham and Tim Searchfield.

And through it all, we have the Stage Manager, our guide as we journey through this tiny New Hampshire town and bear witness to the lives being lived therein.

One can make the argument that “Our Town” has been left behind by our world, a relic of an earlier time to which the world can no longer relate. But one would be wrong. While there are certainly some aspects of the play that haven’t aged particularly well, the core tenets – the celebration of life in a small town as something worthwhile, the importance of young love, the complexities of our culture’s relationship with death – are as resonant today as they were when Thornton Wilder first put pen to paper.

Turner’s direction illustrates an understanding of those central values. One can see the focus on community both onstage and off; the relationships between people are thrust to the forefront. They’re deemed important on his end and so play as important to us. The story matters, of course, but it is largely secondary to the people and the ties that bind them to the place that they live and to one another. That commitment extends to a deliberate choice to share with us where the actors themselves live, continuing that notion of community beyond the playing space and into our world.

The relationship between George and Emily is foundational, so it helps when you have a pair of leads as fresh-faced and sincere as Kelley and Dwyer. They capture the sweetness of discovery and inexperience with genuine charm; their scenes together have an almost aching innocence to them.

Pendergist makes for an amiable, affable Stage Manager. His geniality informs all aspects of the performance, generating an aw-shucks gentility that makes him an ideal guide for this journey into the world of Grover’s Corners. Pendergist is a veteran of local stages; that sort of familiarity translates to the role in a really lovely fashion.

Real-life married couple Joshua and Jennifer Torrance share an obvious comfort and chemistry in their time together onstage as the Webbs; while Simons and Green don’t have the same advantage, they’re equally engaging together as Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs. Noah and Sophie Torrance are welcome additions to their respective family units – Sophie in particular has a wonderful spritely sass to her performance.

Of course, one of the best things about “Our Town” is the ensemble nature of the piece. While certain characters do more of the narrative heavy lifting than others, the truth is that each and every resident of Grover’s Corners brings something vital to the proceedings. Every one of them has their moment and each moment is an important contribution to the whole. Whether it’s the subtle sway of Markosian’s Simon Stimson or the pinched know-it-all-ness of Robotham’s Professor Willard; the homespun generosity of Perez’s Howie Newsome or the huffy nosiness that Ramos brings to Mrs. Soames, everyone has their time to shine.

The truth is that every resident of Grover's Corners is vital to the elaborate tapestry of the tale being told; I’ve said in the past that this play is like an heirloom quilt - each individual square tells a story, and if any square is missing, that story remains incomplete. Turner has done a wonderful job putting his quilt together; each of the pieces fits together as it should, resulting in a sweetly-sewn representation of a small town's soul.

“Our Town” is a story of the connections between us, the ties that bind a community. The folks at the Grand have created a community well worth visiting, so you might want to consider paying a visit. Their Grover’s Corners is well worth the trip.

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