Thursday, 13 July 2017

The poets and the saints

I studied Our Town in Grade Nine English (maybe Grade Ten - it was a long time ago).

It was the practice - and probably still is - to take turns reading the roles. Our teacher, an intense Australian, took the part of the Stage Manager who narrates, and I spoke Emily Gibbs nee Webb for the third, devastating act of the play, and so had one of the final lines: "Mother Gibbs? . . . . They really don't understand, do they?"

I was also branded for life by the exchange between Emily and the Stage Manager, after the realization of the nature of life and living has collapsed in on her. She asks (and I'm paraphrasing because I'm relying on memory): "Are any human beings ever truly aware of life as they're living it -- ev'ry ev'ry minute?" The Stage Managers replies: "No. The saints and the poets, they do, some."

We had a young curmudgeon in the class who took the role of the depressed and disappointed choirmaster. I don't ever recall him saying much at any other time, but he read the part of Simon Stimson to perfection -- a slight, curly-hair boy in a mustard-coloured shirt and black-framed eye-glasses sounding like a cynical and dispirited middle-aged man. I wonder if he grew into it.

So, when I heard that Blue Bridge Theatre was mounting a production of the play, I knew I wanted to go, having never seen a live production of it, apart from the filmed version of the 2003 Broadway revival starring Paul Newman.

And when I heard that Gary Farmer was playing the Stage Manager, I knew I had to go. Gary Farmer was "Lenny" in a stunning Blue Bridge Theatre production of Of Mice and Men which I saw in 2012. This Our Town featured three other actors from the OMaM and the same director.

I thought it was going to be good. It was.

As in Of Mice and Men, I was approaching a work first encountered in adolescence, and seeing through my older and, regrettably, not much wiser eyes.

Our Town is popular in high schools, both for studying and performing, because it has next-to-no scenery, few props, only the slightest hint of sex, and focuses on the love story of two young people.

It's only when you're older that you notice how very grown-up a play it is, that the story is as much about the elders as the youth. Things hit me in the solar plexus that simply didn't register when I was in my mid-teens, not least the bitter-sweet revelation of what has become of the elder Mrs. Gibbs'(Cyllene Richmond) legacy and her dream of visiting Paris.

Also as with Of Mice and Men, the ensemble work was universally fine, from the young lovers to their parents to the village characters. The music was fun, but a bit distracting -- more Tennessee Appalachian than New England Appalachian. And in a strange but moving moment, Simon Stimson (Jacob Richmond), the alcoholic organist, staggers on before the wedding in the middle act and sings "Ombra Mai Fu", which is better known as "Handel's Largo" and is listed, in the first act, as being among the half dozen or so things of "culture" recognized by the denizens of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire.

Frondi tenere e belle/ del mio platano amato/ per voi risplenda il fato./ Tuoni, lampi, e procelle/ nonv'oltraggino mai la cara pace/ ne giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.
Ombra mai fu/ di vegetabile/ cara ed amabile/ soave piu.

"Tender and beautiful fronds/ of my beloved plane tree/ let Fate smile upon you./ May thunder, lightning, and storms/ never disturb your dear peace,/ nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
"Never was a shade/ of any plant/ dearer and more lovely,/ or more sweet."

Needless to say, the melody has been haunting me all week.

Our Town is,by its nature, a very WASP play, but this production featured Laurence Dean Ifill (as milkman Howie Newsome) as well as Gary Farmer who is of the Cayuga Nation. The only reference to this is if you are watching carefully as Professor Willard (Julian Cervello) is giving an anthropological history of Grover's Corners and mentions that the indigenous people are long gone. Farmer's eyes close as he listens.

No comments: