News Column

Manatee Players score with 'Our Town'

November 1, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 01--The classic drama features great young leads

"Our Town," Thornton Wilder's quietly powerful drama of small-town life and universal emotion, seems to have fallen out of favor in recent years.

For decades, it was one of the most often-produced plays in the country. It was especially popular with high schools, because so many of its characters are young, and because it's inexpensive to stage.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama lost some of its reputation because of its ubiquity in amateurish productions, and became less popular. But a respected off-Broadway version a few years back, which famously featured Helen Hunt as the Stage Manager, helped restore the play's lustre, and there's a minor resurgence this season around the country. That it's the 75th anniversary of the play's debut also adds to its appeal.

Manatee Players, which has eschewed non-musicals for the past several seasons, returns to straight plays with its new production of "Our Town," which opened Thursday in the Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theatre at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

It's not a perfect production, but it's a beautiful and poignant one, thanks to Wilder's gorgeous writing and lovely performances in the young lead roles, by Sabrina Bowen and Hunter Brown as Emily and George Webb.

Bowen's perhaps more impressive, but only because she gets the play's most memorable monologue -- one of the most heart-rending monologues of American theater -- near the play's end. But both are believable and seem immersed in their characters. (On opening night, Bowen had to wipe away a tear during her curtain call.)

Diana Shoemaker's good as the Stage Manager, who functions mostly as a narrator in Wilder's unusually structured play. It's a difficult role and Shoemaker gives it a straightforward and utilitarian reading that works well.

Director Candace L. Artim has the entire cast seated on stage for the entire show, rising for their own vignettes. It was necessitated by the limited entrances and exits in the smaller theater, but it's a great effect.

There are a few weaknesses. The cast is large and although there are several excellent performances in small roles, some of the acting isn't as strong as one might like. (Manatee Players have two shows going on at the same time -- "Young Frankenstein" is next door at Stone Hall -- and both have large casts, so the company's considerable pool of acting talent may have been stretched thin.)

Wilder's script specifies that the show should have virtually no set, and that ends up presenting a problem here. Although it wasn't evident during "Always ? Patsy Cline," the first Manatee Players show in the studio theater, when there's no set the space has some annoying acoustics that make the dialogue occasionally hard to hear, at least in some part of the audience.

But the weaknesses don't change the fact that "Our Town" is one of the most profoundly beautiful works of American literature, and that there's so much right with this production that the audience walks out feeling affected and enlightened.

Details: Through Nov. 17 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $26 general, $15 teachers, $13 students. Call 941-748-5875, www.manateeplayers.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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(c)2013 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)

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