Where feeling is first

 

"Our Town

Indiana Repertory Theatre

Directed by Peter Amster

Through Oct. 6

On Friday night, when I handed my $3 to the parking garage attendant under Circle Centre Mall, she asked what we’d been doing downtown. I told her we had just seen the opening night performance of Our Town at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. “That’s a good play,” the attendant said. Then she told us that she had seen a production of Our Town at a high school in Michigan a few years back. “It’s about a small town,” she said. “About how small town living can be good — and not so good, too.”

My first reaction: A parking attendant ready to engage in a quick conversation about a shared experience in the theater — how civilized is that? A palpable hit for the city’s cultural initiative, if you ask me.

And my second reaction: At a different time, in a different place, I would have begged to differ about what Our Town is “about.” As the IRT production, masterfully directed by Peter Amster, makes clear, Our Town may be set in a small town — Grover’s Corners, N.H., to be exact — but saying it’s about small town life is like saying Hamlet is about life in Denmark. Both propositions are true, and neither comes close to the mark.

But this has been the cross Our Town has had to bear for generations. In 1937, Thornton Wilder wrote a virtually perfect American play, a kind of meditation building on Whitman’s insight that every life contains multitudes, and the simply staggering fact that what all lives have in common is that every one of them will end.

This is the stuff of profoundest tragedy.

Yet, by setting his play in a small town at the turn of the 20th century, and making its central characters a boy and girl who come of age and fall in love, Wilder created a work whose elegance of design lent itself to interpretations sentimental and superficial. Hence the play’s incredible popularity among high school drama groups, whose players can only begin to guess at the depths of life experience that Wilder unflinchingly explores. Really listen to his text: It is replete with throwaway lines that, fully considered, can bring you to your knees.

It would be a great shame if playgoers, whose experience of Our Town is associated with the grease paint and chalky hair color of high school efforts, skip this production because they’ve been conditioned to think of the play as quaint. Amster’s version honors Wilder’s intention to invest the tragic with heat and the comic with bite. His ensemble cast serves as a marvelous emotional trigger, and he gets particularly inspired performances from Gwendolyn Whiteside as Emily and Robert Elliot as the Stage Manager. Whiteside’s phrasing is audacious; it invests her Emily with a soul this girl/woman’s mortal world cannot contain.

The set, costumes and lighting design are excellent in their authenticity and understatement. Indeed, you forget them before the first act is done, which is as it should be. This is an Our Town where feeling is first.

Our Town plays on the Mainstage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre through Oct. 6. Post-show discussions will be held Sept. 23, Sept. 26 and Oct. 4. Tickets begin at $32. Call the box office, 140 W. Washington St., at 317-635-5252 or go to www.irtlive.com for schedules and information.

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