by Zoe Case
The audience became the actor in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town last weekend. Directed by James Dennen, assistant professor of drama and film, the show recaptured in spectacular fashion the wonder of Wilder’s original ideas of pantomime, comedy and the relationship between the audience and the stage.
The story surrounds the nostalgia of everyday life in the early 1900s. In the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners live two families: the Gibbs and the Webbs. The families, over a span of 12 years, intertwine and collide, leading to the drama of the play. Our Town has three acts, “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Dying.” The play is about profound truths and harsh realities in an idyllic-seeming town, and the production supported this concept particularly through its use of stage illusion.
George Gibbs, played by Mark Ashin ’18, pantomimed throwing a baseball up into the Bolton rafters, only for a real one to fall back down. This image, which marked the beginning of George’s relationship with Emily, resulted in a moment of breathless wonder; it made the audience feel as if they were children again.
The whole stage was magic: Pieces of scenery were brought in by stagehands who interacted with the characters onstage; a devilish, omniscient stage manager, played by Amy Young ’16, hurried the actors — and their characters — along and worried about the length of her show. If the stage was magic, the actors were magicians, giving remarkable performances for which they received a standing ovation from a full house on Friday night.
The ensemble had multiple standouts. Chris Wilson ’16 played Professor Willard, a character who, when introduced by the Stage Manager, comically addressed the audience with a run-down of the geology of fictional Grover’s Corners. Spencer Huffman ’17, who played Mr. Webb, walked through an imaginary wall and, upon realizing his error, crossed back to the door and play-acted opening and stepping through it.
The real bravery in the show came from both Hannah Zipperman ’16 in her portrayal of Emily Webb and Ashin in his portrayal of George Gibbs. Ashin stepped into the production three weeks ago as one of the lead characters after the original actor left the performance. For having such a short time to prepare, Ashin was fearless onstage.
“We’ve had extra rehearsals and have been cramming like crazy,” Ashin said before the first performance. “To a certain extent, we have to be a little less fun and theoretical, and be like, ‘OK, this is what needs to happen concretely.’” Their partnership ultimately proved fruitful. Ashin’s George fits into the world of the play seamlessly and, alongside Zipperman’s delightful Emily, bolstered the cast.
The only noticeable gaffe from either of them was a poorly timed moment in which Emily was supposed to drop her schoolbooks after a brief tug-of-war with George. Instead, she seemed to throw them to the ground in a fit. The moment drew a laugh from the audience, not through any intention of the actors. Every other image told the physical story of the play with creativity.
Rioghnach Robinson ’16 directed and composed the show’s musical numbers. The town choir sang her original recompositions of famous hymns multiple times onstage, but her musical direction of the final tableau was the most memorable moment of the production.
In the final image of the play the Stage Manager leaves George and Emily alone onstage with their own grief and a ghost light — a special lamp which lights a theater when it is empty — after Emily’s death. This meeting of the plot and an emblematic symbol of the theater was profound in its own right, but the music sealed the deal.
In the audience, student members of Kenyon’s music department stood one by one and sang Robinson’s final original composition of a haunting melody to match the scene onstage.
With this moment of connection between audience and story, Our Town became a transcendent experience. It reminded us of why we, as humans in want of connection, go to the theater. This production was about the lives of little people in little towns all around the world. It was even about our town, about us.