April 26 2010 12:00 AM

Purple Rose turns a classic into a class act

We are coming to the end of Act Three.  Emily asks the question: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute?” The stage manager answers: “No," then pauses and adds, “saints and poets, maybe they do." The play is a classic — Thornton Wilder’s 1938  Pulitzer prize winning “Our Town” — brought back to life one more time, gently and delicately  by the Purple Rose Theater Company.

 You know you are in the presence of a great piece of theater when the lights come up, and as actors move quietly onto the set, your eyes tear up before the first character utters a single word.

“Our Town" is  both iconic and idiosyncratic, one of the first plays of the modern era to break the “fourth wall,” in which a character addresses the audience directly. In this production, Will David Young as the Stage Manager narrating the play begins by creating a very real fictitious town of New Hampshire in the early days of the 20th century. 

 There is no set for this play other than two tables, a few chairs, a ladder stacked here and there. Young relies on the magical abilities of a storyteller and the capacity of the human mind to entirely imagine what a small town from long ago might look like. He is perfection in this role, all crisp and crusty and full of homespun pithy sayings that evoke archetypal existential images from the depths of the human psyche. He takes us, in turn, through the three acts of the play, first outlining the simple aspects of a day in the life of the town, then tripping lightly through the most joyous and tender aspects of a wedding, before, in Act Three descending into the darkness and wonder of death and eternity to follow. 

“Our Town” requires a considerable cast of characters. In this production, all of 16 people occupy the small Purple Rose stage at one point. Director Guy Sanville demonstrates an intuitive sense of how to move actors on to and off the stage in a way that is never cluttered, never confusing. 

The Gibbs family and the Webb family are at the heart of this play, with  the star-crossed teen-aged lovers George Gibbs and Emily Webb at the core. Stacie Hadgikosti’s performance, as Emily,  is filled to the brim with a fetching hormonal exuberance, while Michael Brian Ogden, as George,  is all embarrassed shucks and gee-whizzes in her presence. It is the two mothers, however, that particularly shine in this production, Michelle Mountain as Mrs. Webb, Rhiannon Ragland as Mrs. Gibbs.  Together they express an anxious rat-a-tat efficiency that recalls the house-bound homemakers of generations ago, fully alive despite their constricted social roles, fast-talking yet articulate to the ear. This balances well against the calm, even-tempered, deliberative manner of their husbands, Jim Porterfield as Dr. Gibbs, Bill Simmons as Editor Webb.

Sanville merges Acts Two and Three in this production, substituting a dark piece of transitional music for a second intermission, jumping a bit abruptly to the final cemetery scene, in which Will David Young orates last words of solemn ministerial sermonizing about life, death and eternity. The cast portraying dead people act just a little too dead in this scene until  Emily Webb, literally, comes back from the dead for a brief period of a day only to realize that one cannot really ever go home again. This final scene between mother and daughter is soul-wrenching to watch and Stacie Hadgikosti reaches deep within to pull off a deeply moving performance.

One audience member was sobbing at the end, others tearful. One does not leave this play without experiencing deep reflections about the meaning of life.

"Our Town"

Purple Rose Theatre

137 Park Street, Chelsea

8 p.m. Wednesday-Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday through May 29.


(734) 433-7673