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Justice Theater Project dials down Our Town

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It's the kind of advice you'd give an actor with a tendency to put too much topspin on every line: "Get out of the way of the words. Let them do the heavy lifting."

By most accounts, it was one of the key principles New York director David Cromer used in his approach to Thornton Wilder's Our Town, whose audacious, award-winning revival closed two weeks ago, after a year-and-a-half run off-Broadway. Cromer applied it to what critic Terry Teachout termed the "anti-acting" of his own performance as the Stage Manager in the show, the character who introduces the work and serves as host and tour guide through its three acts.

It was an intriguing and rewarding approach. In minimizing the aesthetic and physical distance between actors and audience in the intimate Barrow Street Theatre production, Cromer confronted New York audiences with the point that we're all in the same boat: No matter how much we kid ourselves, ultimately our lives are relatively small, humble and brief. Moreover, their circumscribed loves, ambitions, relationships and meanings are all we've got. As a staging concept, it's a departure from the nostalgic glaze long associated with the text.

Director Kevin Ferguson's production for Raleigh's Justice Theatre Project attempts to follow Cromer's lead. The audience surrounds the performance on three sides. And though the stage and audience space takes up less than half of the expanse of Clare Hall at St. Francis of Assisi Church, the intimacy of this production still seems compromised by the hall's three-story height, the distance remaining between bleacher-like risers and the stage and the unused parts of the cavernous room.

But when Ferguson directs all of the actors to deliberately downplay their delivery of Wilder's text, mixed results occur. It was jarring on Friday night when the injunction against cell phones in veteran actor J. Chachula's matter-of-fact stage speech before the start of the first act directly led into Wilder's equally matter-of-fact first lines without perceptible transition or pause. Chachula's Stage Manager was a gracious host, but his casual line delivery was, at times, too casual: After he flubbed actors' names and the name of an act, his low-key monologue on marriage ended the second act on a strange note of anticlimax.

On the other hand, the same reserve resulted in the best work I've ever seen onstage from Jack Prather, who gave his newspaper editor Webb a touch of Wallace Shawn in his candid assessment of Grover's Corners' limited cultural assets. A later cup of coffee he shares with future son-in-law, George Gibbs (Lucas Campbell), far too early on the morning of his daughter's wedding, was a tribute to comic timing and reticence.

But dialing down the passion robs Susannah Hough's Mrs. Gibbs of poignancy when she dreams early on of Paris; later, the wedding-day jitters of George Gibbs and Emily Webb (Ali Hammond) are underplayed beyond belief. Although Hammond's schoolgirl is wide-eyed and winning early on (something of a departure from accounts of Cromer's interpretation), when Ferguson finally lets her go emotionally off-leash in the final act, this promising acting student veers beyond the limits of her present emotional range into a rushed, shrill and unconvincing take on a woman's look back on one morning in her life.

Elsewhere, the vocal restraint of various actors results in inaudible passages when their backs are turned to the audience.

Stephen LeTrent embodies an austere and apparently physically sore Dr. Gibbs, whose ailments don't entirely alienate him from his family. Campbell, in another standout role for this promising young actor, is convincing. Strong supporting work from Ian Finley, Sean Brosnahan, Renee Wimberley, John Honeycutt and Lester Hill round out a production whose everyday people are, alas, sometimes just a little too everyday.

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