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Starting today, Abigail Shorter will have an entry on her Actor's Resume that very few young ladies could ever boast: the role of "Stage Manager" in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. The decision, by director Jonathan McCarter at North Carolina Theatre Conservatory, to cast the role cross-gender might have been driven by any number of factors. He might have wished to "shake up" the play of Our Town, which granted, has been done the same way for over half a century. He may have decided to cast the role as a "stretch" for a willing actress. He may have seen something in Shorter that told him she could handle it. Or he may simply have run out of male actors. Or it might have been any number of the above reasons or all of the above. Whatever the reason, McCarter has cast a young woman to play an old man, and shake things up he did, quite nicely.
Shorter joins a very short and well-renowned list of female Stage Managers. Helen Hunt performed the role in 2010, a few years after playing Emily in the same play. Geraldine Fitzgerald is believed to have been the first actress to play the role, in 1971 – notable because it would have been while Thornton Wilder was still alive. I suspect Wilder would have been...bewildered at that decision.
But there is a lot the audience has to do while watching Our Town, and our suspension of disbelief must work a little harder than it does in some plays. So, adding to that aspect is a bit of a surprise, to be sure; but it is neither unheard-of nor even unprecedented. According to Hunt, the role is not so much a matter of male v. female; it's a matter of authority. And besides, Shorter does a bang-up job.
Our Town is the selection for this year's summer acting program at the North Carolina Theatre Conservatory. Shorter joins a cast of eighteen, who together make up the townsfolk of Grover's Corners, NH, at the turn of the twentieth century. "86% Republican, 86% Protestant." As the playwright states, this is not a town with any nationally-known figures nor a town where anything worthy of note is likely to happen. But upwards of 3,000 people live here, and most of the kids who graduate settle right here.
What often happens when teens perform Our Town is that costumes and makeup do some real work for most of the actors who are performing a role at least twice their age. That is not so much a part of this particular production. This production tends to leave the descriptions to the playwright, in more of a Reader's Theatre performance, than it does by aging any individual performer. I found this troubling. Without the assistance of physical indicators of age, there were times in the play when I got no sense of paternal affection or youthful obedience, for example, making some scenes seem more like recitations.
It is underscored, throughout the play, that these are actors performing roles. While this production had room for some actors to show more developed character creation, I believe Sierra Corcoran as Mother Webb managed this challenge the best. I got a real sense of the duties important to her as wife and mother, and some excellent shading of her character as a no-nonsense taskmaster.
We as denizens of the 21st century have no real sense of what life was like over 100 years ago; but the one true fact of the matter is, the pace of life was slower. One traveled on horseback; the automobile was a newfangled contraption. No one hurried at anything. This cast seemed to rush, and may have better served this old time New England rhythm by slowing down.
Both George (William Kalland) and Emily (Riley Yates) had the youthful exuberance required; their interactions were highlights of the show. And once the decision of marriage was made, Kalland as George slowed down nicely, savoring this new aspect of the relationship.
As an ensemble, the entire cast worked well together. The stylized changing of the sets was well-choreographed and executed; and the characters interacted as if they had all known each other all their lives. Overall, this is a good production; but I did miss the aging of the characters. To be truthful, that might be more my fault than theirs!
Our Town continues through Sunday, August 14. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.