Most people probably know Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, winner of a Pulitzer, a Tony, and a Drama Desk award. With thousands of productions from high school theatre to Broadway, it even has a street in New Hampshire dedicated to it. If you don’t know it, don’t worry, you can still watch Pony World Theatre’s production without a hitch, as it sets up its audience with a summary of the original Our Town before diving into their rendition. Wilder’s play takes place in the small town of New Hampshire, Grover’s Corners, where nothing really happens in the relative peacefulness of the early 1900s. As such, the play is about community and small towns and appreciating even the uneventful in life. A narrator (who is also the stage manager) speaks directly to the audience as he tells the story of Emily and George, from growing up as next-door neighbors, getting married, and eventually being separated by death: life’s natural cycle. However, this is not exactly how Not Our Town goes. There’s still a narrator breaking the fourth wall, there’re still metatheatrical elements and there’re still three acts, but Pony World’s production is more of an artistic collage that adds more characters, depth, and narrative action, while still reflecting the original meaning and simplicity of its predecessor.
Writer and director Brendan Healy dissects and explores Our Town in a dynamic, choose-your-own-story play that seems to surprise even its own cast. Not Our Town defends the original play’s relevance and meaning but also explores its antiquity and sometimes lack of exciting action. All the while, it introduces an additional narrator and stage manager, Amber, who is not a fan of Wilder’s work and advocates every few moments to modernize the play, add dance breaks and make the story more dynamic. Amber is also the first narrator’s daughter, and their two voices fight about their creative differences, one of them appreciating Our Town, and the other not so much, which makes it an extremely critical experience of self-awareness and growth.
What is perhaps most surprising is that it feels like we’re watching and understanding the story alongside the narrators, as their opinions change, and their feelings and memories arise in moments of tension and tenderness. At some point, Our Town takes a backseat, and Not Our Town becomes its own play, with Amber and her dad as the focus. We learn about their personal stories, their struggles, their memories, and their relationship with each other, which only exacerbates the real meaning of Healy’s rendition, which is also the meaning of Wilder’s. I have to say, some plays don’t even have a good driving narrative for their main characters, but this one has one even for its narrators. Of course, for this to happen as beautifully as it did, you need great actors. Amber Walker and Mark Fullerton command the stage in a way that mesmerizes, with tenderness and passion and a father-daughter relationship that feels raw, which makes it all the better. Walker’s versatility and potency make a good combination with Fullerton’s sweetness, his knowledge and his anger. It was a delight to watch them play narrators, stage managers and deep-feeling characters all at the same time.
Tyler Campbell, Sophia Franzella, Kathy Hsieh, Agastya Kohli, Jesse Parce, Alanah Pascual and Lisa Viertel are up to par with the overall quality of the production, with precision, accuracy and energy, and giving each character a very distinct voice. They’re ready to do things in disorder and play the same scene back-to-back in two different styles. They showcase a surprising range and skillset in scenes like movie trailers, marriages, fights, dark room scenes and dance numbers, and only make you want to watch more. Although Pony World assures us that there is no improv in this play, the cast does such a good job that it was hard to believe that their reactions weren’t genuine.
Another one of Not Our Town’s best elements is that it lets the audience decide which version of the play they get to see. I won’t spoil anything, but you get to take a survey at the beginning of the play and choose certain aspects of the play: props or no props, juggling or things falling from the ceiling, mystery style, specific scenes you want and even whether a couple stays in or out of love. Majority rules. This is one of the reasons why this production feels like a collage, as it means that some scenes will not be shown, and others might be included out of nowhere, with a different theme or style, but it also means that it’s a much more intimate experience. The audience gets a voice, and the cast members get to be surprised alongside you, which makes their jobs more fun and their acting more natural. It’s truly refreshing when the cast seems to be having just as much fun as you are. The only downside to this format is that it can be complicated to make all transitions seamless, as you can go from a tense fight scene to a happy dance break. Though the script and cast seem to easily go past this hurdle most times – and kudos to them for such a fantastic job in doing so –, it’s something for the production team to keep an eye on.
With a minimalist set and scenery (characteristic of Wilder’s Our Town), scenic designer, Parmida Ziaei, and sound designer, Alex Potter, easily bring the scene to life. Opportune color lighting helped exacerbate moments of tension while the music made it an overall immersive experience that was enjoyable to its audience.
Not Our Town seemed like the most effective combination of director, writer, cast, scenic and sounds designers, and other members of the production, to make the play feel just the right amount of lighthearted, real, and immersive. Definitely a production worth watching.
12th Ave Arts 1620 12th Ave, Seattle | November 4 – December 3, 2022 | Shows at 7:30pm. | Sunday, November 27 matinee at 2pm.