Seven years have passed since Jay O'Berski's revelatory production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. That Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern effort, produced by an African-American cast of 16, demanded that audiences question the racially oriented casting and programming practices of the day.
The major takeaway I found in the production was that the only true limits in theatrical casting are those of the imagination, and that artists flourish only when they're allowed to explore all regions of the human experience, instead of a handful of canonical scripts. But the lessons are more ambiguous in this similarly themed production of Thornton Wilder's 75-year-old Our Town.
When Carly Prentis Jones says, "This play is called Our Town," we seem to be on the brink of a production that will delineate an African-American community's small-town experiences of life at the beginning of the 20th century from the version long associated with Wilder's. That sense is reinforced by the raucous introduction immediately preceding it. The cast of 10 erupts through the double doors onto a parquet dance floor, wielding miscellaneous percussion, including a big bass drum with the words "Grover's Corners Brass Band—Weddings and Funerals."
But that processional, set to the ragtime number "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," would have been more convincing if Trevor Johnson had actually known how to play the trombone he brandished. The few atonal braps he did muster compromised the world of the show in its opening moments.
Those expecting the Jazz Era interpretation suggested by the atmospheric poster by Alex Maness are likely to feel shortchanged as well. There are precious few jazz licks in a town that basically lives up to Editor Webb's assessment of a place a "little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller." Since O'Berski and Little Green Pig are no strangers to radically altered stagings of canonical plays (including their other Chekhov highlight, Three Sisters (On Ice), also from 2006), it's a shame and a lost opportunity that existing copyright law has forced them to be relatively circumspect in this production.
Not that this iteration is a photographic duplicate of its (many) earlier incarnations. When the duties of the play's iconic Stage Manager are split among a host of cast members, O'Berski explores the populist notion that the town is fully capable of speaking for itself.
Frequently—and unimaginatively—the fathers of star-crossed high-school sweethearts George Gibbs and Emily Webb are portrayed as interchangeably benevolent. Yet, as Dr. Gibbs, the town physician, Thaddaeus Edwards finds a stern, driven man whose impatience with his wife (a robust Kyma Lassiter) and children alienate them all. Lassiter's interplay with Lakeisha Coffey's warm but watchful Mrs. Webb speaks to years of next-door neighboring, and the heartfelt awkwardness between Aurelia Belfield and J. Alphonse Nicholson as George and Emily is a major draw in this production.
There's not a weak moment among the central and major supporting actors (including Jade Arnold's notable take on errant choirmaster Simon Stimson), although some of the gender-switched cameos seem contrived. Jennifer Blocker and Johnson distinguished the momentary appearances of a number of vivid townspeople.
In the odd ending they've devised for the work, O'Berski and his crew attempt to come full circle, both musically and thematically. But the jarring, schismatic effect ultimately seems a bad splice; two life-based motifs superimposed too hastily upon one another. And an intermission-less running time of 1:50 poses a challenge all its own to even a dedicated audience.
With the interpretive half-measures brought to a very well-known script—and an American experience in which the gauntlet of racial discrimination is alluded to only once in the course of a long evening—even a production with this stellar a cast still leaves us wondering, "Whose town is it, really?"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masterpiece theater."