“This play is called Our Town.” This is the fourth-wall-destroying opening line of the meta-theatrical, Pulitzer Prize-winner Our Town, now being performed at the Quadracci Powerhouse (Wisconsin Center, 400 W. Wisconsin Ave.) by the Milwaukee Reparatory Theater.
The line is said by The Stage Manager — played by Laura Gordon, now in her 85th role with The Rep — who addresses the audience throughout. She welcomes attendees like she was expecting them and wishes us a good night’s sleep at the very end.
Shattering the fourth wall is the intent of Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder — there still aren’t really any other scripts like it, even though it premiered on Broadway 80 years ago.
The Rep reinterpreted Wilder’s minimalist intention for the play, although still certainly respecting the script and its origins. Our Town is almost always executed with very few props, and the Rep’s rendition was no different.
But brilliant audio, headed by Sound Designer Barry G. Funderburg in his 21st season with the Rep, added ambient noise to pantomimed actions. The audience hears coffee fill a mug and a baseball pop into its mitt while an actor mimes the action without any props in hand — simultaneously erecting and demolishing a fourth wall for the audience.
As for the props that do exist, a ghost light sits on stage even after the audience files in, costumes change in sight of the audience, and there are stacks of chairs haphazardly stacked at the rear of the stage, looking like they won’t matter, but of course they do. Other than that, there are only a couple tables, benches and staircases that actors interact with.
Cher Desiree Alvarez leads the cast as Emily Webb, stealing the show with her laugh. Alvarez’s giggles perfectly emulate her character’s youthful and naïve intelligence. The young actress’s performance becomes so believable that it begins to reconstruct a fourth wall in the face of Wilder’s long-tested attempt to prevent it.
Di’Monte Henning counters as Alvarez’s love interest, George Gibbs. Henning manages to display Gibbs’ good-ol’-boy archetype and matching naïveté, but failed to leave an impression like Alvarez did.
That said, both Henning’s and Alvarez’s performance were not intended to stand out but rather to fulfill archetypes, as were the rest of the cast’s — Elizabeth Ledo as Mrs. Gibbs, Rána Roman as Mrs. Webb, and Rep newcomer Matt Zambrano as a very funny Mr. Webb.
Wilder reminds viewers of the significance of seemingly insignificant conversations around the dinner table and birthday gifts and cold winter mornings we all know too well.
Its three acts make up a birthday cake’s worth of slices of life: life and love, school and marriage, birth and death, you get the picture. The characters are pretty much all variations on stock characters, save perhaps The Stage Manager. The setting — the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire — is nondescript enough that it could be anywhere.
Our Town is truly a play about plays. It reminds the audience that it is an audience and that what is happening on stage is not real, but its closing minutes still bring many viewers to tears.
If nothing else, Our Town proved its timelessness once again.
“Whenever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” the Stage Manager muses in the third act, but she leaves it to the audience to figure out what is nonsense and what is not.
Go See It: Milwaukee Rep will be staging Our Town every Wednesday-Sunday (plus Tuesday, May 8) until May 13. Tickets can be purchased online.
Check out this video from The Milwaukee Rep below: