For over 80 years Thornton Wilder’s Our Town has awed audiences with his tale of small town lives that are awash with humanity and poetry. Now it has come to our town of Brisbane to kick off the 2021 season. Boasting a stellar cast, full house audience and a swag of heart this play mesmerised us all. Directed by Lee Lewis, this beloved play is the antidote for our times. It is uplifting, honest and a reminder to cherish the moments that are important in life.
SheSociety were excited to attend Opening Night of this play and be welcomed back to live theatre by a cast filled with experienced stars, emerging talent and some up and coming stars of the future. In the audience I spied playwrights David Williamson, Steve Pirie and David Megarrity, actors Andrea Moore and Kristen O’Leary, journalist Phil Brown, director Kathryn Lyall Watson and Minister for the arts Leeane Enoch. All were in for a treat with this three act play, one of the most performed in history. As a hush settled and a veritable who’s who of Australian acting lit up the stage this audience held its collective breath.
The play Our Town was first performed in 1938 and was to become perhaps Thornton Wilder’s best loved play. It’s set in the town of Grover’s Corners where life thrums in a peaceful way, everyone knows everyone else ( and their foibles) , papers are hand delivered and the daily milk cart still rattles around in the morning. It’s a simpler time but one that is not too distant from the lives we now know. There are births, courtship, weddings and death to remind us all of the seasons of life.
We meet the the Gibbs and the Webbs, neighbours who see each other every day. Mr Gibb is the town doctor and he and his wife have two children, George and Rebecca. Mr Webb runs the local newspaper. He and his wife, have a boy and a girl as well, Emily and Wally. Both families are happy and a huge part of the local community.
With the steady guiding hand of the Stage Manager, we see this town and its inhabitants grow and changing through scenes called – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity. Babies are born, songs are sung, children go to school, play and grow up. There is romance and tragedy, love and happiness, sadness and tears as the townsfolk remind us of the meaning of life and the beauty in the everyday. You will leave cherishing those you love most in life. You will leave reminding yourself to seize the day and you will leave full of hope and joy in the power of humanity to survive and thrive amidst it all.
Jimi Bani ( Hedda , My Name is Jimi) as always was a standout. He shone in this role, as if the role of Stage Manager were written just for him. There was humour and warmth, gravitas and solemnity and his sure footed grasp of this big play with a big cast kept the audience interested in what was coming next. He essentially mustered the cast and set the scene, with Wilder’s descriptions and those of several characters adding to the feel that you were part of this American setting. Bani has such a strong stage presence he commanded your gaze even when he was in the shadows. Look out for him as Othello later this year.
The strong and luminous Libby Munro ( Noises Off, Venus in Fur) played an assured Mrs Webb with poise and wit in equal measure. Her performance was a treat to watch. The chemistry between wives was easy and believable. Amy Lehpalmer ( The Spirit of Christmas, School of Rock) played the harried and anxious Mum , Mrs Webb, with an experienced eye. Her snippets of singing were a treat.
Hugh Parker (The 39 Steps, Nearer the Gods) was lovely and a calm and reassuring presence as Emily’s Dad. The daughter/ father bond between he and Emily was just right and in the wedding day scene so reminded me of the calm of my own Dad on my wedding day. Colin Smith ( Nearer the Gods and Twelfth Night) played serious Doctor Gibbs with an easy old fashioned charm.
The story hinges on the relationship between bookish Emily , a fine debut piece for Queensland Theatre from Lucy Heathcote, who is a QUT drama alumnus and the laconic George, a perfect fit for actor Jayden Popik, who recently received rave reviews for Mouthpiece. Emily’s emotional turn reduced many in the audience to tears, good tears that is, and Jayden’s natural and easy performance, once again marks him as one of the stars of the future to watch.
Bravo to Roxanne McDonald who brought the house down several times with her perfect comedic timing. Roxanne delighted in her roles of Mrs Soames, Jo Crowell and Si Crowell. You could feel the joy at being back on stage emanating from Roxanne and this feeling was passed on to the eager Opening Night audience. Thank you, Roxanne.
Not many props were used but Egan Sun- Bin used them well in his hilarious turn as Howie Newsome. Anthony Standish was surly town drunk , Simon Stimson, Silvan Rus , the calm Constable Warren and Andrew Buchanan was the nerdy Professor Willard and Sam Craig.
Special mention must go to the young stars who shared the roles of Wally Webb and Rebecca Gibbs. They are all part of the Young Artists Ensemble at Queensland Theatre. Their performances were thoughtful and exuberant in equal measure. The future is in good hands with Angus Freer, Luca Klarwein, Mia Foley and Ava Ryan learning their craft alongside such fabulous actors.
Lighting was key to the tension and the sound from The Sweats showed innovation and forethought. I know Nathalie Rayner and her team were grateful to be once again costuming some of their favourites and I applaud the multi purpose uses of some of the items of clothing. It was very clever costuming for such a large cast and multiple roles.
This play is big in every way. It has been performed more than any other play since 1938, the themes and cast are huge and the play is long, but what a joy to see actors working on a story that delights in our humanity, that encompasses big universal themes and reminds us of the meaning of life and how precious it is. In choosing this play to begin the 2021 season Lee Lewis has revealed her own humanity, her skill as a leader and director and reflects the values of inclusivity, diversity and ‘working as one’ that we should all be embracing at this time. This delightful play is lighting up our town until February 20.
Freelance writer, wife and mother of three sons, occasional supply teacher and aspiring romance author, Michelle Beesley can be most often found in a coffee shop chatting with friends or beside a rugby field cheering on her favourite teams.
Michelle is a prolific—albeit reluctant—traveller, keen walker, bookworm and yoga enthusiast who loves anything pink or sparkly (including champagne!).