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JUNEAU - What is the meaning of life? Or death? How did we live? How will we?
'Our Town' christens Juneau's new McPhetres Hall 032311 AE 1 Capital City Weekly JUNEAU - What is the meaning of life? Or death? How did we live? How will we?

Photo By Kasia Spengler

From left, Carl Brodersen as George Gibbs, Connor Chaney as church organist Simon Stimson and Megan Behnke as Emily Webb in Theatre in the Rough's performance on "Our Town" in the new McPhetres Hall. Behind the scene, guitarist Bob Banghart, bassist Ceann Murphy, cellist Patrick Murphy and violinist Libby Sterling perform pieces of original music composed by Banghart.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Story last updated at 3/23/2011 - 1:19 pm

'Our Town' christens Juneau's new McPhetres Hall

JUNEAU - What is the meaning of life? Or death? How did we live? How will we?

Heavy questions for the asking are at the root of Thornton Wilder's classic play "Our Town," now being staged in Juneau by Theatre in the Rough. This is the troupe's first performance in the new McPhetres Hall in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, replacing the one that was consumed by a fire five years ago.

Joining the ranks of "Death of a Salesman" and a few other Arthur Miller plays as the most important and defining of American theatre, "Our Town" tells the story of the souls which inhabit the imaginary New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners. Though it is referred to and often woodenly staged predominantly as a "drama," Theatre in the Rough cofounder and "Our Town" Director Katie Jensen's treatment of the work also draws out the humor, wit and irony Wilder imbued it with, but without going over the top and playing things for laughs unnecessarily. It is a serious play in the way that life is serious; the audience laughs, though more with recognition of themselves and rarely examined truths than simply mirth. Though the characters are, by virtue of the omniscience of the stage manager, fragile and temporal snapshots of human lives, there is still real life and real dimensions to them.

Though this relates to all the actors, one of the most remarkable was Rev. Hunter Silides, filling the role of Mrs. Gibbs, who seemed to capture the essence of the character and all of her ... transformations, from shouting at her children to wake up to explaining the way to navigate our delicate existences. Even more remarkable considering, as expressed in the liner notes, it is the first time Rev. Silides has appeared on stage since grade school.

The notable Ed Christian, known to any theatre-goer in Juneau, takes on the challenging role of "Stage Manager," who Wilder granted the powers of foreknowledge, time travel and ability to communicate directly with both the audience and the characters. Of course, no performance by Christian would be complete without him jumping into the roles of other characters as needed, from the local milkman to the undertaker, flowing between them with expertise.

Despite one or two "a-yeah"s and "Concohd"s, the affected New England accents employed by the actors never cross the line into sounding like extras from an episode of "Murder She Wrote."

In a play as sparse as "Our Town," it is important to have players who can fully grasp the roles. There are no walls or devices to hide behind. There is nothing in the way of props more than some chairs and a couple of stepladders.

What is missing physically is also filled in with sound. Music provides a subtle mood and bridges in the action, played by a four piece group behind the scene. Guitarist Bob Banghart, bassist Ceann Murphy, cellist Patrick Murphy and violinist Libby Sterling perform pieces of original music composed by Banghart, an addition to the play which creates a dimension that helps expand the fourth wall and cements the audience into the feeling that they are peering into a time capsule, a reproduction, of what life was like for the fictional town. The music never dominates the scene or draws attention away from the narrative.

Sound effects are also provided, both off stage and on, by Theatre in the Rough cofounder and consummate actor Aaron Elmore, who makes the noises, the heartbeats and clock ticks of the life of Grover's Corners without missing a beat in his role as Mr. Webb, the idealized patriarch of Emily played by Megan Behnke, whose engaging stage presence will be recalled vividly by anyone who saw her in "Cyrano."

A troupe is more than just its theatre - and if it's one thing that Theatre in the Rough has demonstrated, they could in all likelihood stage a heck of a play in a downtown alley in Juneau - but the beautiful new McPhetres Hall does add some charm and creature comforts to the audience. Although still a work in progress, the mostly finished quality of the hall lends itself to producing something like "Our Town," with its bare bones set design. The focus, as was Wilder's intention, is on the characters, the descriptions of the stage manager and the audience's imagination.

During the play, the stage manager mentions that the town of Grover's Corners is assembling a time capsule, including a portfolio of Americana: a Bible, a copy of the Constitution, the local newspaper. The contents will be treated to last millennia, and examined at some future date to see how this culture quietly lived out its existence. There is something self-referential in this, a similarity to the literary creation of Wilder. And Jensen and company have masterfully staged it both as a relic and something altogether new.

Perhaps we're peeking too soon into an all too familiar world, but then again the issues addressed in "Our Town," beyond the superficial changes in technology and the citification of rural areas, are all too human to change in a mere blink of an eye.

And yes, the new chairs are really, really comfortable.

"Our Town" will be on stage at the new McPhetres Hall (4th and Gold Streets) through April 10. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books, the JACC, and at the door, though seating is limited and picking up advance tickets is encouraged. For more information, go online at www.theatreintherough.org or call 209-0867.