Our Town embraces the audience in its stage world

>>> Theatre Rusticle’s movement-inspired production of Thornton Wilder’s classic is touching and thoughtful

OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder (Theatre Rusticle) At Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander). Runs to April 2. Pwyc-$28. See listing. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNN

Sitting in Theatre Rusticle’s production of Thornton Wilder’s American classic Our Town, you don’t just watch the citizens of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. You become part of the town.

The actors, already onstage warming up when you enter the theatre, come over to welcome friends in the house and introduce themselves to others. The audience becomes neighbours in this small community, a microcosm of the human experience on earth and beyond.

The central character in the script is the Stage Manager, who addresses us directly and guides us through the play’s three acts. In Allyson McMackon’s fine production, the entire cast shares that role, making the narrator’s voice a wider, all-knowing source of information.

At the centre of the story, set in the early 20th century, are two neighbouring families: that of Doctor Gibbs (Geoffrey Whynot), who has a teen son, George (Matthew Finlan), and that of Mr. Webb (Hume Baugh), who publishes the town newspaper and has a daughter, Emily (Priscilla Taylor).

We meet the families and other townspeople in the first act and see the emotional spark between George and Emily. Later we watch their courtship and wedding day and finally see their future, played out on the nearby hillside cemetery.

Wilder’s skill – and the reason the show is a perennial favourite – is taking the personal and particular about the characters and their relationships and by play’s end making a universal statement about humankind.

McMackon adds a layer of physicality to the show that might take some audience members a while to get used to, but it soon infuses the production with added warmth, humour and rootedness in everyday life music and dance also make a contribution. By the end of the show, the staging is absolutely, in several ways, stellar.

The strong acting ensemble not only give a physical life to their characters but also become milk-cart and horse, doors and various other inanimate objects. Sometimes the performers are carried into a scene like mannequins who then come to life. There’s no real offstage (the simple set is a grey square painted on the floor) those not involved in a scene watch the action from the sidelines and sometimes echo the gestures of those performing.

Some characters are more sharply drawn here than usual, and several scenes stand out, including the confrontation between Gibbs (an angry, commanding Whynot, the role played darker than usual) and George (the wonderfully limber Finlan) the doctor’s irritated mood continues in an episode with his wife (Jenna-Lee Hyde). Taylor’s Emily is a vibrant, testy teen who calms down as she approaches marriage but again wants more freedom in the final scene. Taylor and Finlan give the Emily/George scenes a palpable emotional richness.

The show’s success is bolstered by Baugh’s practical, solid Webb (he entertainingly fields questions from the audience) and his protective wife (Sarah Machin Gale, bringing an admirable physicality and gravitas to the role) Rusticle regulars Viv Moore and Lucy Rupert, who create memorable cameos with seemingly no effort François Macdonald as the town choirmaster and drunk and the energetic Augusto Bitter in several parts.

And though the design is intentionally spare – as it is in the original script – Michelle Ramsay’s circle-based lighting relies on pools of illumination that create households and other specific locations, while Brandon Kleiman’s costumes are understated in the first part but literally shine in the last.

That final act, set in the cemetery and with sound design by Paul Humphrey, is magical, both in terms of what’s discussed and what we watch. The darkness of death and eternity figures into it, as does the starry sky above our planet. It’s an unforgettable ending.

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