Reviewed by Dana Martin
Deaf West at the Pasadena Playhouse
Through October 22
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Our Town is an enduring American masterpiece. The plot itself is uncomplicated; like a fine and gentle fabric, its meandering narrative weaves together the stories of people living in a small sleepy community. Wilder reveals the characters plainly yet intimately, capturing a tone of innocence and nostalgia that moves the audience unexpectedly. This co-production by the Pasadena Playhouse and Deaf West moves slowly, taking plenty of time to show us just how beautiful, and how awful, life can be.
The play takes place in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, an idyllic yet very ordinary town. Its subject is everyday life. It begins in the morning with the announcement of a birth, then spans 12 years, and ends in the evening, in the moments following a funeral. Act 1 focuses on two families, the Webbs and the Gibbs — next-door neighbors whose children, Emily and George, grow up together and fall in love. Act 2 focuses on a wedding, Act three, on death.
The entirety of this production is spoken and signed. Wilder draws heavily upon the audience’s senses throughout, so seeing this play with the inclusion of American Sign Language seems fitting. ASL elevates one’s sensory understanding of the play, as it is a physically articulate expression of thought and feeling. Director Sheryl Kaller finds a variety of ways to incorporate signing within the storytelling.
Emily Webb, the play’s central character, is fashioned with tenderness and depth in outstanding performances by Sandra Mae Frank (who plays the action), and Sharon Pierre- Louis (who speaks the text). The women co-create the character in a harmonious tandem that is wholehearted and completely fascinating. Deric Augustine finds an earnest and lovable George. The rest of the company provides plenty of imagination and heart.
Reading at times from the script, Jane Kaczmarek delivers a less-than-confident performance as the Stage Manager, the play’s storyteller. Still she’s likable and straightforward, both necessary qualities for the role. Kaczmarek is variously joined by Alexandria Wailes, Troy Kotsur and Russell Harvard respectively, who take turns signing the story as she speaks. She follows each of their uniquely decisive leads.
Scenic design by David Meyer rightfully employs simplicity and imagination. The entire set consists of chairs, ladders and rope. The lack of scenery is a relief, though the stage still feels a bit overburdened by chairs. Costume designer Ann Closs Farley creates simple, stylized looks for the town’s many inhabitants. Lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg is ethereal and dreamy.
Wilder implores us to believe that, within each moment, life is unbearably beautiful — If only we could recognize that beauty as it happens, rather than after. Our Town reminds us just how precious life is, and how fleeting. Human beings are woefully ignorant and too blind to see this as they live it. Every, every minute.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; performance times vary, through Oct. 22. (626) 356-7529 or pasadenaplayhouse.org. Running time: two hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions.