Monday, November 9, 2015

Butler University theater season launches with "Our Town"

"The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn't it?"

-- Stage Manager, opening speech, Our Town


Life's fleeting quality, so much part of our consciousness that we become suspicious of it when it recurs in works of art, has never been had a more beloved exposition on the American stage than Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which opens Butler University Theatre's season this week.

Sean Caron as Simon Stimson addresses townsfolk in a scene from Butler's "Our Town."
Its minimalist style, nostalgic small-town setting, and its folksiness have commended it to high-school and community-theater treatment, as well as professional productions, throughout its history. We all grew up knowing Grover's Corners and the amiable guidance we got around town from the Stage Manager.

Wilder based his concept on one of the verse self-portraits in Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," in which the figures speak of their lives from the grave. "Lucinda Matlock," dead at 96, concludes her epitaph: "What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness / Anger, discontent and drooping hopes? / Degenerate sons and daughters, / Life is too strong for you — / It takes life to love Life."

In some sense, despite its reputation as theatrical common coin, perhaps even common corn, "Our Town" is the perfect play. Its spareness of presentation puts the emphasis on a view of time's passage that only the theater can replicate. The eloquence of its few props has permanent resonance. Much of theater since then has benefited from Wilder's sure instinct for blending simple word and simple image, up to the empty jar the heroine holds up to the light in James Still's play for Indiana Repertory Theatre, "April 4, 1968"

What "Our Town" accomplishes in having connected with so many people on different levels over more than seven decades has its parallel in what an indelible tune accomplishes, though it may also earn its share of scorn. A professional songwriter whose name I can't recall hit on this when he said something to the effect that many musicians, especially those writing for the movies or the stage,  make fun of borderline hokey music like the Theme from "Chariots of Fire," but "you know we'd all give our eyeteeth to have written it."

You, dear reader, may be catching my drift, as you are bringing to mind scenes and lines from "Our Town," Perhaps you're calling up those white wooden chairs in the cemetery of the last act. And surely at least half of you now have the Theme from "Chariots of Fire" stuck in your head for a while.

Butler's production is directed by William Fisher. Performances are in the Schrott Center for the Arts. Here's the line-up of guest actors from Butler staff and faculty (followed by date and time of performance), who play Professor Willard:

*Provost Kate Morris (Wednesday at 7 PM)

*Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson, with an after-party featuring live mascot Trip (Thursday at 7 PM).

*Performing and Fine Arts Librarian Sheri Stormes (Friday at 7:30 PM).

*Jordan College of the Arts Dean Ronald Caltabiano (Saturday  at 7:30 PM)

*Jon Van Ness '71, whose final Butler Theatre production as an undergraduate was "Our Town" (Sunday at 2 PM).


The full season can be found here.