Hartford Stage, Hartford
Recently theatergoers were lingering over coffee at a restaurant, prior to a Hartford Stage matinee of “Our Town.” Looking out the window, they were startled to see a man, cell phone in hand, wandering along Main Street. It was, surprisingly, Hal Holbrook, star of the very show they were to see at 2 p.m.
How would he get to the nearby theater, change into costume, apply make-up, take on a persona—all within half an hour? How could he peremptorily change from Hal Holbrook, actor, to the Stage Manager, Thornton Wilder’s lead character in “Our Town”?
Simple. As it turns out in this production, Hal Holbrook is the Stage Manager—in fact, lives inside his very skin. Holbrook’s folksy, understated style, impeccable New Hampshire twang, confiding approach to the audience, all seems natural, unlearned. Perhaps the years of performing his one-man Mark Twain show have helped develop his feeling for Americana. Holbrook holds it all together, has command of the stage and the story. It is a memorable performance, in a role he was born to play. Others over the years have taken on the Stage Manager effectively, but Holbrook is the Stage Manager incarnate.
The production itself, under the direction of Gregory Boyd, Artistic Director of the Alley Theatre in Houston, is a stark, stripped-down piece which allows Wilder to make his points. Boyd moves the action smoothly from one short scene to another, with the simplest of sets which lets the story speak for itself. As Wilder himself once explained in a preface to the drama, it is a life-and-death, a life-in-death piece, an exploration of the human condition. The daily trivia is entwined with the universal. As Wilder puts it, it is “the life of a village against the life of the stars.”
The village is Grovers Corners, New Hamphire. Developing an unusual style for the time, the 1938 play destroys the fourth wall, involving the audience in the proceedings. Flashbacks and shorts scenes, with the Stage Manager assuming other roles, tells the tale of two families, tracing their lives through childhood, love, marriage, death.
Casting is uneven, with Ginna Carter particularly disappointing as the girl Emily. Carter does not inhabit the character, but gives a studied recitation. On the other hand, Donovan Patton as her husband, is an appealing, believably naïve young George. Also giving strong performances which enhance the production are Josie de Guzman as George’s mother, Erin S. Courtney as his young sister, and Noble Shropshire as the drunken choirmaster. Most others in the large cast give adequate, though uninspired, performances.
But, when all is said, it is Hal Holbrook who makes this show a memorable experience, not to be missed.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 9, 2007