When a small theater group in a small town takes on a classic of Broadway, one’s expectations can be—how should I say this?—dim. Therefore, when I was invited to the opening night of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning Our Town at the Gaslight Baker Theater in Lockhart, Texas (a town known best for its barbecue and barbecue feuds), I accepted with hedged enthusiasm.
Before I go further, I want to clarify my credentials—or lack thereof. I am well-versed in literary criticism, hold degrees or certifications of one sort or another in English, religion, education, computer training, first aid, and animal care (if you count my Boy Scout merit badge). I had an Introduction to Theater class thirty years ago and have seen plays both on and off Broadway (even off off Broadway), in London’s West End, in Dublin, Ireland, in Shakespeare’s Globe, and at numerous universities and small-town theaters (or high school cafeterias) in the United States. I’ve written reviews for Texas Books in Review but have never, in all my years, reviewed a play. I’ve only enjoyed (or endured) watching them.
Enough about me: The Gaslight’s production of Our Town was the best play I have ever seen by a local theater group. One could argue that the material had as much to do with the play’s success as the actors or directors; however, I’ve seen Shakespeare done in a town where each of the actors had some level of southern drawl and seemed to be cast according to their abilities at hiding it—none were completely successful and neither was the play. In opposition to that horrendous effort stands the Gaslight’s Our Town, a pleasantly surprising triumph. The play was bolstered by the stellar interpretations of the three main characters as well as the efforts of several other cast members.
The highlight of the play is the once-happy then deceased and broken Emily Webb Gibbs played by Ester Williams Henk. With seamless shifts in the age and circumstances of her character, Henk moves from the laughable courtship with George Gibbs, played by Jeron Jeffery Tucker, through the fearful approach to marriage, and into the graveyard scenes of the third act without a shred of hesitation. In her method Heck conveys to the audience that the loss felt by the dead is as great, or greater than, that of the living. Guided by the ever-present Stage Manager, played by Jason Jones, Henk reveals the philosophical insistence of Wilder to live in an awareness of the moment and the people with whom those moments are shared.
Jones’s attendant narration resounds through the Gaslight Theater in a voice reminiscent of Burt Lancaster, ranging from his Bill Starbuck character in The Rainmaker (1956) to his Doc Graham in Field of Dreams (1989). From onset to close, Jones keeps the audience attentive or smiling or laughing or hopeful or melancholy as the he explains the processes that encompass life and death in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. A word about the audience of the Lockhart production is necessary here as it relates to the appropriateness of the choice of Our Town for this minor theater with great ambitions; attendants included local school teachers, a local dentist, and a couple who were married by Jones (a minister in his out-of-theater life) several years before.
Jeron Tucker enacts an inept and hilarious George Gibbs in his bumbling but ultimately successful courtship of Emily Webb. Tucker’s early performance is met with laughter, smiles, and headshakes, and his open-eyed portrayal of George creates a more poignant moment in the final act. The audience has heard from the deceased Emily, but when Tucker fell to his knees at her graveside, audience members reached for their hearts in shared agony, a commendation to both Wilder’s script and Tucker’s performance.
Many others deserve accolades that space will not allow; however, a few include Nina Bryant, Randall Ischy, Stewart McGregor, and Maddison Welvaert. One moment in the play that cannot be overlooked comes in the third act as Emily (Heck) kneels to greet Wally Webb (played by Charles Francis), her younger brother who has preceded her in death. Wally reaches out to stroke her hair, a sublime moment reflective of the deep affection between siblings, though they fought constantly in life.
Our Town moves continuously across the stage with comings and goings and shifting and turning, and the Lockhart crew performed admirably without a noticeable hint of misstep, suggesting that director Steve Lawson knows what he is about. Bravo to Lawson for his direction and casting. Bravo to the Gaslight Baker Theater for a performance far in excess of expectations. Bravo to Lockhart, the small town that did Our Town.
Our Town runs Fridays and Saturdays through August 4 with two scheduled matinees. More information and tickets are available online at the Gaslight Baker Theater.