By Doug Shanaberger
Is it a reinvention? Is it a makeover? Or a modernization, if you will, of a 77-year-old play that many of us were introduced to as teenagers, in the classroom?
Maybe it’s a way of bringing audiences closer to a play so often pejoratively brushed off as sentimental and, worse, schmaltzy.
What director Sunny Disney Fitchett really set out to do with Thornton Wilder’s beloved “Our Town” was to remove “old-fashioned” from the equation (from our perceptions of it, too) and celebrate the timelessness of an American theater staple that has, for decades, illuminated the most familiar and ordinary aspects of everyday life.
“Our Town” opens May 7, launching the 67th season at Little Lake, but bringing to an end its former artistic director’s career with the group. She says her farewell, appropriately, by revisiting “my favorite American play,” one the cast—from its veteran players to its newcomers—came to love as well.
Sunny and seven actors from the production talk about “Our Town,” old impressions and new points of view.
Sunny Disney Fitchett (Director)
In one way, “Our Town” feels like home to me. The first time I became associated with the play was in 1976 when I was 20 years old and I played Emily. It was the first time I was exposed to the big ideas of the play: “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” It was the first time I thought about slowing down and noticing.
I saw my best friend, Sarah Rush, play Emily soon after that in a production in Los Angeles directed by Gower Champion. I remember that, as an opening night gift, I gave her the script I’d used in the 1976 production.
I played Emily a second time in 1979 and, by then, I’d fallen in love with my future husband, Rob Fitchett, and I understood a little more about another aspect of the play—about falling in love, about “the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and you didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you … you’re just a little bit crazy.” I kept growing with the play.
By the time I played Mrs. Gibbs in 1995, my son was three years old. And then I understood the deep, powerful, raw loss that Emily must have felt when, after dying in childbirth, she mourned the separation from the two children she left behind.
Now, with the advantage of “advancing” age and life experience, I am struck by how profound and universal the reflections put forward in the play are. Thornton Wilder looked at Daily Life and Love and Marriage and Death, and reminded us of the familiar, universal truths that we don’t take out and look at very often.
Art DeConciliis (Stage Manager)
Of course, I first was introduced to “Our Town” in a high school English class and have read it several times since for a number of courses. I always appreciated the nostalgic sense of Americana that it presented, but never really connected with it. It was only at a performance of the show, the last time Little Lake presented it, that the piece began to strike a cord in me. Sunny and I have talked on occasion about how she loves this piece and I’m rather ambivalent about it.
Lately, though, my position has changed. Doing this play as my last collaboration with Sunny, after 22 amazing years, has brought a new insight to the material. Her innovative take of relating it to both current day and making it a theater company’s production of the piece has been challenging and exciting to develop.
The Stage Manager is an interesting role—part narrator, part God, part voice of the audience. Sunny has helped me develop a character devoid of a trite folksy nature and create a Stage Manager that drives the action, challenges the audience and helps make the piece about all of us, right here and now. I hope I live up to the concept.
Finally, this show is speaking to me as a voice of community. Many times in cast discussion, I’ve related “Our Town” to our Little Lake community—to the sense we have of belonging, of being inter-connected, and of the joys, frustrations and disappointments we’ve experienced as artists in community. And as I say goodbye to one of my dearest colleagues, it couldn’t be more relevant.
Lily Lauver (Emily Webb)
There aren’t many people familiar with the point of view we’re taking with “Our Town,” which is all the more reason to rediscover it this way.
Our efforts to make the play current and relatable have unlocked the same potential it had to touch audiences when it was first shown by Thornton Wilder … not to convey a folksy, faraway town, but to take the audience by the hand and spin them around to give a perspective on their life now. We need to keep it current. This play that has so often been performed as precious and sweet is so much more than that. It’s stark and powerful, and our job as a collective cast is to show our audiences that.
I’ve known and been working with Sunny for about six years. She directed the first play I was ever in, “Madeline’s Christmas,” and she has given me the room to grow as an actress … I know that every second I spend at Little Lake is something that I will cherish forever. I will always have Sunny and Rob to thank for that.
James Curry (George Gibbs)
I feel really honored to work with Sunny on this show. I know it’s special to her, which just makes me want to work even harder on it. I’m just grateful for the experience … that’s really how I feel about it, that working with Sunny on her favorite American play with such a stellar cast is such an experience, a good one.
Mary Liz Meyer (Mrs. Gibbs)
I saw “Our Town” once, a million years ago, and had never read it before this produciton. I always thought of it as an out-of-date play even though I wasn’t very familiar with it. Then after starting rehearsals, I realized that it’s right on with the issues people are dealing with every day.
As for Sunny, I’m happy that she’s directing her favorite play as her swan song. It’s touching to see how connected she is to it. And I’m so glad that she’s chipping off the varnish and pushing us to make it as truthful and current as possible.
Bob Rak (Dr. Gibbs)
Although I’m probably way too busy—and a bit overwhelmed—in taking over the managing director duties, I jumped at the chance to be a part of Sunny’s last production as artistic director and to be in one of my favorite plays.
As Sunny laid out her concept, I had to go back to the drawing board of what I thought Dr. Gibbs was all about. As the rehearsal process progressed, Sunny directed us to approach this with the truth of how we would feel and react in these scenes.
With that direction I found myself thinking of real people I know who are facing the same problems as these characters or are in the same stage of life. And I feel that it has really made a difference in my progressing to what Sunny is looking for from me. It’s driven home the point that the themes in “Our Town” aren’t themes about life in the early 1900s … they’re about life. Now, then and what’s to come.
Allison Cahill (Mrs. Webb)
This play evokes a blizzard of my own childhood memories, from birthdays to family traditions, making clear that hundreds of small moments at age 5 or 10 or 15 completely shaped the person I am today. I find my mother, my sisters, my brother, my father and myself in the characters of this play.
I think, in a way, “Our Town” was ahead of its time. Our culture has changed from making accolades and possessions our most important goals to realizing that being mindful, present, and appreciative of every moment of our lives determines how richly we experience life.
What amazes me about this beautiful play is that the playwright’s simplicity can affect us so deeply. Sharing these life moments together with a group of strangers in the dark, we feel sad, elated, humbled and a little healed by the shared experience.
Phil Powell (Simon Stimson)
The contemporary touch that Sunny has come up with, what we are going to execute, is so clever and unique, and everyone has bought into it so well, my prediction is that this production will be a huge artistic success. And this being Sunny’s fifth or sixth performance of this play, as well as it being her favorite American play, has created a special edge and urgency that is so compelling.
Another thing worth noting is the use of live music. Marina Lauver with her cello and Rob Fitchett and his percussion are … so special and unique. Also, Rob being a part of the show lends itself to the production being a wonderful send-off for Sunny and Rob and their extraordinary leadership at Little Lake.
I am so excited for opening night, perhaps as I have never been before. And I am sure the audience will get how wonderful this play is, how profound its message is, and it will be a perfect swan song for Rob and Sunny.
To purchase tickets for “Our Town,” which runs through May 23, phone Little Lake’s box office at 724-745-6300, or take advantage of the opportunity to order tickets online at www.littlelake.org.