Minimal sets, props characterize award-winning play

The exhortation of the play “Our Town” to enjoy life to its fullest transcends the time during which it was written, cast members said.

Because the production features a minimal set and the actors pantomime most of the props, there will be little to distract students from that message when “Our Town” opens at the Buschman Theatre tonight.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play follows two neighboring families, the Gibbs and the Webbs, over the course of several years. It focuses on the relationship between George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who eventually marry. After Emily dies in childbirth, she gets the opportunity to relive a single day from her life. Emily realizes she never fully appreciated the meaningful moments she shared with friends and family.

It’s a theme most college students can relate to, said senior theatre major Tricia Williamson, who plays Emily’s mother in the production.

“We get so caught up in schoolwork and everything that we have to do,” Williamson said. “We don’t realize that we’re not going to be alive forever, and we should be enjoying it more.”

The show’s director, T.J. Walsh, declined an interview.

Senior theatre major Daniel Fredrick said he thinks playwright Thornton Wilder’s bare-bones approach to the piece resulted from a dissatisfaction with the way plays were staged in 1938, when it was written.

“He wrote this play as an attempt to refocus what he felt like theater should be about, so he sort of stripped away all the nonessential things,” Fredrick said. “There are no walls. There’s just a few chairs and tables, and that’s it.”

Fredrick plays the stage manager who also acts as a narrator.

“He speaks directly to the audience – sets up sort of what’s going on, introduces the town and the people in it,” Fredrick said. “He’ll also have to move furniture and everything, and he plays a couple other characters in the play.”

Williamson said learning how to deal with the set and practically nonexistent props was the hardest part of preparing the play.

“You have to stop and think: how can I make people understand what I’m doing without them seeing anything physically in my hands?” she said.

Still, senior theatre and communications major Desmond Ellington, who plays a deliveryman, said he thinks the absence of props enhances the action onstage.

“It’s a very intricate story, and it’s told out of sequence sometimes,” Ellington said. “It’s written that way so the audience can focus on what the actors are doing with their scene.”

Fredrick said that the many students who read the play during high school should give it a second chance.

“I think they should come to this play to dispel the notion that it’s this dusty, old, boring thing,” he said. “Unless you had a really phenomenal English teacher, I think it’s really tough to understand this play in that period of your life.”

Although some students may have less-than-fond memories of the play, Fredrick said he thinks “Our Town” will be around for a long time.

“This play’s really about people and humanity,” he said. “Those things haven’t changed, and I don’t think they ever will. I think ‘Our Town’ is going to be produced in another hundred years.”