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So, okay, I'd never seen Our Town. Lest my American citizenship be called into question, of course I read the play, but somehow it never came to pass that I actually saw it. As initiations go, the Purple Rose production was a fine way to break the ice, a fresh-feeling approach to a classic that speaks for itself.

The success and longevity of Thornton Wilder's play is in its universality. The specifics of life in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, are not ubiquitously American; they describe a single small town, in New England, in the early twentieth century. Yet the stories of two families growing up, finding love, and suffering loss even now feel like our own. Newcomer though I was, it's safe to say there are few actors better suited to the role of Stage Manager than the lyrical Will David Young, whose leisurely paced, gentle narration neither extols nor condemns the proceedings. This warts-and-all take on the past is what sets the production apart. Eschewing anything idyllic or sepia-tinted, director Guy Sanville does not lionize the humdrum repetition of "Daily Life" in the first act. In fact, he is unafraid to dig for humor (even when it is of the "mothers be shrill!" variety), knowing there is plenty of time later in which to grab the viewer's heart, and squeeze.

The staging and design consistently remind the audience that we are in a theater, and this is a play. Vincent Mountain's set is quite simply the Purple Rose rehearsal space, but tape marks on the floor indicate where furniture is to be placed, a fluid commingling of past and future. Lights by Daniel C. Walker dive into the story to near-magical effect. A limited suggestion of period is provided by Sally L. Converse-Doucette's costumes and Danna Segrest's sparse properties. The large cast sometimes gathers far upstage, waiting for characters to be called and providing occasional sound effects to supplement the actors' pantomime. With the overall effect of sitting in on a rehearsal, the naked display of artists working together, of needing almost nothing in order to tell a compelling story, works.

The production's single intermission follows the first act; the latter two acts — "Love and Marriage" and "Death and Eternity" — are presented in succession. Here is the meat of the story of George (Michael Brian Ogden) and Emily (Stacie Hadgikosti), the former earnest and steadfast as a toddler, the latter an impetuous know-it-all. Again, Sanville doesn't soften the edges of their true-love story; the scene in which they declare their feelings for each other is dominated by a sense of just how young they both are to be making lifelong decisions. The preparations for their wedding featured two of my favorite performances in Michelle Mountain and Rhiannon Ragland (mothers of the bride and groom, respectively); the actors' depth and range make these equally henpecked and overworked characters sublimely distinct and sympathetic.

Wilder's third act crosses over into the supernatural, presenting a point of view about death that can be hard for a viewer to comprehend. Here, the work of Ragland and Matthew Gwynn are especially strong as their characters indoctrinate a deceased Emily into the town cemetery. I wasn't utterly spellbound by Hadgikosti; there was a brilliant moment in which her performance flooded me with grief, but the connection faded. (It didn't help that in a sea of drawn New England affectations, her voice remained defiantly Midwestern, a sloppy detail in an otherwise slick production.) However, Wilder's view of "live people" from the afterlife — and the pounding life lesson folded into Emily's hasty coming to terms — cannot fail to resonate.

It's difficult to pinpoint to whom I should recommend this show, given the play's stamp on the very DNA of Americana. People who have families; people who go to weddings; people who celebrate birthdays: come on, it's Our Town. Anyone who has only seen the play on the page, or attended a production steeped in teary nostalgia throughout, should find it interesting how the playwright's same words can be presented to different effect in this production. I was surprised at just how prickly Sanville's perspective felt at times, but he ably demonstrates that these imperfect characters — much like ourselves — are still worthy of affection and grief.


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