I’m not an actor. I’m much more comfortable in the director’s chair and the critic’s aisle seat than in the spotlight. When someone asks, “Do you also act?” my answer is, “Not if I can help it.” But every once in a while an intriguing opportunity pops up and I can’t help it.
For nearly 30 years, the Northampton Center for the Arts has been the city’s keystone venue for visual and performing arts. It was established in 1984 as a public/private partnership between the city government and the developers of the former Sullivan School complex. Now the Center’s non-renewable lease is about to expire.
And that’s how it happened that I’ll be on stage this weekend in a production of Our Town. The Center is producing Thornton Wilder’s bittersweet meditation on community as a farewell tribute to the town that has sustained it for three decades. So when the Center’s director, Penny Burke, asked me to take a supporting role in this swan-song production, I couldn’t help but say yes.
Two other considerations spurred my decision to participate. One was the fact that I think Our Town is the great American play. Premiered in 1938, it broke all the boundaries of the well-made, proscenium-framed play and revolutionized American stagecraft. Frankly acknowledging the conventions of live theater, it strips away the naturalistic trappings and invites the audience to fill in the spaces with their own imaginations. (Our production even dispenses with period costumes.) And despite its reputation as a sentimental slice of Americana, the perennial high school play, Wilder’s deceptively straightforward narrative of small-town life contains deep, even cynical currents of thought about the cycle of human existence.
Even the director, Toby Bercovici, said recently that she’s found it “a much darker and more complex play than I’d initially thought. It shows human beings rushing through their lives so as to protect themselves from what they might discover in the stillness, in the silence.”
Bercovici is the other reason I wanted to be in this show. She’s a young director of extraordinary imagination and promise, steeped in a variety of approaches to theatermaking. I felt I could learn something from her, and I have. She has molded our diverse cast of 14 local actors into a fluent ensemble by, as she put it, “focusing on teasing out truthful performances, fostering electric relationships, and keeping people present, connected and breathing, so that we can all—as a community—experience something real together.”
I play Doc Gibbs, the somewhat grumpy village GP, opposite Moe McElligott as his wife of 20 years. We’re the parents of George, the somewhat feckless young fellow who marries his next-door neighbor, Emily Webb. Those two are played by recent UMass graduates Joshua Platt and Alexis Reid.
Veteran actor Linda Putnam plays the (deceptively) genial Stage Manager, who sets the scene and guides the audience from a typical day in town through the play’s graveyard epilogue. A freak accident just as rehearsals were beginning fractured both of Putnam’s legs, so she’s playing the part in a wheelchair. This mother-of-invention necessity has added a nice fluidity to the staging—but has made us all wary of the conventional opening-night good luck wish, “Break a leg!”•
Our Town plays Nov. 29-Dec. 1 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, 17 New South St., (413) 584-7327, nohoarts.org.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.