Not a dry eye in the house. Thornton Wilder's
, with its combination of sentimentality and nostalgia, never fails to move people. And the Arden's lavish, leisurely production, capstone of its 20th season, proves that the old American classic is well worth reviving.
is about Grover's Corners, a small New Hampshire town early in the 20th century. We get to know the Webb family and the Gibbs family; we watch Emily Webb (the lovely Rebecca Blumhagen) and George Gibbs (Peterson Townsend) grow up, fall in love (their courting scene at the soda fountain is the evening's jewel) and, in Act 2, marry. We meet their parents, neighbors, brothers and sisters. In Act 3, set in a graveyard, we find out who died and how they feel about that.
There are 29 actors and a few chairs. The sound effects - bridle bells, train whistles, green beans pinging into a bowl - are provided, shamelessly, as sound effects. The Stage Manager tells us how much time has passed and philosophizes about the ordinary events in these sweetly ordinary lives.
Director Terrence J. Nolen goes to great lengths to make the show distinctly his own - and Philadelphia's. Gov. Rendell made a cameo appearance Wednesday; other local luminaries will follow. The program includes old photos of Old City. During the first intermission (the play runs three hours) the audience walks next door to Christ Church for Act 2's wedding. We stand as the bride walks down the aisle with her father (Greg Wood in a fine performance, both open-faced and subtly nuanced), and we all get misty. A local choir - one of 36 booked for the monthlong run - sings, then we all sing. As the organ plays, we return to the theater for Act 3. The sense of community, of young people marrying, parents worrying and reassuring, is irresistibly realistic, even as we watch theater being created.
As Mrs. Gibbs, Sherri L. Edelen is natural and charming, as is JoAnna Rhinehart (Mrs. Webb), whose transition from dimpled wife to wrecked mother at her daughter's funeral is powerful. Most of the cast turn in solid performances, resisting the impulse to pop out from the carefully created fabric of the town. As the Stage Manager says, "Nice town, y'know what I mean? Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it . . .."
Besides the interesting use of venue, the color-blind casting is clearly Nolen's attempt to create a sense of our town. But while he has included Caucasian and African American actors, one wonders where everybody else is - our town is more varied than black and white. I also wondered why the Stage Manager wore denims, a wristwatch and an earring. Eric Hissom, in this crucial role, spends entirely too much time flirting with the audience. And why do some of the cast sound like hillbillies? Nobody has a New Hampshire accent.
And nothing in this production notices that the good old days, when children were respectful and neighbors were mannerly, had their dark side - a side the play itself acknowledges. Women were powerless. Culture is absent. Mrs. Gibbs never gets to Paris. The town drunk, a tormented choir master who hangs himself, provides a grim existential post mortem that this production does its best to ignore by seating him with his back to the audience. Wilder's vision is wider and deeper than the Arden's.
Through June 22 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. Tickets: $27-$45. Information: 215-922-1122 or
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