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Our town's 'Our Town'

Community is the lifeblood of the Arden production, costarring Christ Church and nearby graves.

Some ideas just need time to percolate. It's been 18 years since Terrence J. Nolen, producing artistic director of the Arden Theatre Company, reread one of American theater's most enduring chestnuts,

Our Town

, and decided he would put it in a new shell.

Summers blistered, winters blustered, years passed, and Nolen toiled on in his everyday pursuits - just as happens in

Our Town

, Thornton Wilder's 1938 stage portrait of a New Hampshire town's circle of life

. But finally Nolen's vision for

Our Town

has blossomed into reality. Now in previews, it opens at the Arden on Wednesday night.

Opens at the Arden

has a double meaning: The play literally opens at the Arden, on Second Street near Market, but it doesn't stay there.

After Act 1, the 29 performers portraying the good citizens of Grover's Corners gather themselves for the minute's walk to neighboring Christ Church, and the audience moves with them. There, Act 2 - which climaxes in the wedding of the town's sweetest high school grads - plays out at the altar, in the historic pews, and down the main aisle.

After that, the actors and audience walk back to the Arden, past candlelit graves of signers of the Declaration of Independence, for Act 3. On stage, the dead of Grover's Corners sit stoically in the town cemetery, observing the living and offering the play's message: Appreciate what you have during your lifetime. You won't be able to do so from your grave.

People who haven't seen

Our Town

in a while may recall it as unashamedly corny, a rendering of a pristine early-20th-century America that no longer exists, and may never have. Yes, it is that, but it also delivers a painful wallop - the audience becomes a part of the town not just in life, but in death as well.

"I thought I knew the play, and I read it again one summer afternoon 18 years ago, and it totally devastated me," Nolen says.

Even then, his idea was to subtly use Philadelphia as a window into the work, which celebrates community. But shortly after he reread it, People's Light and Theatre Company staged its own take on the play, setting it in its home community of Malvern and having cast members change roles and genders from night to night.

So Nolen waited,

Our Town

always somewhere in his mind, because "I felt like it was a play that got at essential truths."

At one point, he thought he'd begin his production at the Arden, move it to Christ Church, then run Act 3 in the church's fabled graveyard three blocks away, where Ben and Deborah Franklin rest with other colonial notables. But the logistics of that could have turned

Our Town

from a theatrical ghost story into a nightmare.

This year, the same stars Wilder uses as a metaphor in the play's final moments at last aligned for Nolen. Christ Church has recently finished a major restoration, with updated lighting and sound - a plus not just for theology but for theater, too. Also, as

Our Town

turns 70 this year, the Arden turns 20. "Throughout the years, again and again," Nolen says, "we've come back to plays that deal with community.

Our Town

's theme of community seemed perfect for ending our 20th season."

Eyes rolled last year, he recalls, when

Our Town

was announced as part of this season:

Our Town

- that old yawn. But Nolen nailed down his walkabout staging, hired a multiracial cast that looks more like an American town nowadays, and revealed additional plans for the show. "Now," he says, "people are really getting excited by it."

The excited include Gov. Rendell, who has prodded Nolen to roll out the play ever since he told Rendell his concept years ago. The governor is the honorary producer.


Our Town

's logistics are more than a little demanding. At each performance, audience members will ask the questions of Grover's Corners' newspaper editor that Wilder had had actors ask from seats in the audience. On different nights, "they'll include the governor, TV personalities, sports figures, community leaders, teachers of the year, firefighters, police - people from all over," Nolen says. Once the play moves to Christ Church, the guest actors will sit in President Washington's pew.

Our Town

famously presents the audience with a stage manager who narrates, and stops and starts the action - a constant reminder that the plot is make-believe, even as it becomes more searing. In this production, make-believe and reality also will overlap in the Grover's Corners choir; actors playing the townsfolk generally do the singing, but the Arden has recruited a different real choir from the region for each performance, and added 42 seats in specially built choir lofts for them.

An Arden crew spends all of Act 1 busily lighting candles in Christ Church - including the chandelier under which the Franklins' daughter walked down the aisle to be married - and votive candles at the graves outside. "Our entire lighting budget for

Our Town

has gone into candles," Nolen says.

Franklin Fountain, the Market Street re-creation of an ice cream parlor from the early 1900s, the same era as the play, is providing fans for audience members entering Christ Church for Act 2's wedding, and the church is scheduling bell ringers to sound the bells in the famous steeple.

Wilder wrote

Our Town

to be free of props and scenery, and Nolen stages it that way, with sound effects coming from the aisles for the slamming of invisible doors, or shucked pea pods being tossed away. But as a rehearsal the other night revealed, a scenic designer would be hard-pressed to match the elegance, or instill the historical wonder, of Christ Church for Act 2.

"We've talked about this with Terry for years. We love the idea of doing this program with the Arden," says Don Smith, executive director of Christ Church Preservation Trust, whose wife, Hether, sits on the Arden board. "We like to say this has been our town for 313 years, so we feel a wonderful kinship with the Arden and love the idea of celebrating community. It's all part of sharing this wonderful treasure we have here in Philadelphia."

For Nolen,

Our Town

's focus on the strength a community brings to the people who nurture it has been the moving force behind his plans for the production. As part of the community theme, Arden is inviting the participating choirs and special guests to bring brochures to the theater, "to spread the word about what they're doing."

"The notion of the ties that bind us," he says, " - that's something I care most about."