The Manatee Players marks the 75th anniversary of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” by reminding the audience of the power of this simple yet profound play.
It’s a slice-of-life look at a small New Hampshire town around the turn of the 20 century, but things haven’t changed so much. We all still go through our daily chores, struggling to keep up with household and work demands, and caring for loved ones. The days never seem long enough to do it all.
And what do we sacrifice? The tenderness and emotional connections that make our lives more fulfilling. It’s a lesson the characters in “Our Town” don’t really learn until they have passed away and can look down from their cemetery plots on the hill and “tsk tsk” their survivors who continue on as they always have.
Those of us watching from the audience still have a chance to change, and each new production can inspire an audience.
Director Candace L. Artim takes a traditional, bare-bones approach to the show in the company’s new Studio Theatre. There’s no set to speak of, other than some tables and chairs. Cast members take their seats and listen in with the rest of us as different characters act out scenes that detail a typical day, and then look at the day romance bloomed between neighbors George Gibbs and Emily Webb.
In a break from tradition, Diana Shoemaker plays a female Stage Manager, who narrates the story and provides details on the town’s history. Shoemaker has some interesting moments but still needs a bit more command of the role.
Artim appears to have encouraged her cast to play their roles with a slight touch of emotional detachment, as if they’re matching the view of them expressed by their dead relatives at the end. There are feelings, but there’s a New England coolness to it all.
If that’s what she’s going for, it works on a certain level, because the town residents all seem to fit together. You get a few compelling moments from Mark Shoemaker as British-sounding Dr. Gibbs and from Bill Atz as the newspaper editor Mr. Webb. Lynne Doyle and Kristi Hibschman play their wives with days filled with work and purpose.
The exception comes from Sabrina Bowen, who emerges naturally as a lovely and nearly radiant Emily. The heart of the production is a soda shop scene when Emily and George admit their feelings to one another.
They’re still young and nervous, and it’s delightful to watch as Bowen shyly sips her imagined soda (all the action and props are mimed) to avoid expressing her inner thoughts. She and Hunter Brown as George make a nice match as they awkwardly turn away from one another when one of them has confessed true feelings.
You also can appreciate the sound effects provided by Jordan Ball, Tahj Porter and Dolan Sipes who snap their fingers to simulate the women snapping beans, or creating the sounds of forks on plates as the families eat breakfast.
It’s all an example of simplicity in action, forcing us to use our imaginations, putting ourselves in the places of the characters and learning the lessons that Wilder’s play continues to share.
By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Candice L. Artim. Reviewed Oct. 31, Manatee Players’ Kiwanis Studio Theatre, 502 3rd Ave., West, Bradenton. Through Nov. 17. Tickets are $26, $15 for teachers, $13 for students. 748-5875; manateeplayers.com