It is just before dawn in Groverâ€™s Corners, New Hampshire, and we are about to embark on a multi-year stroll through the simple life. The play is Thornton Wilderâ€™s Our Town and the tour guide is a nameless Stage Manager (Steven M. Porter) peeking into the lives of a few New Englanders in the early years of the 20th century. The classic text is in good hands at The Actorsâ€™ Gang, where the company handles Wilderâ€™s words and sentiments with homespun care. The sound effects and imagined scenery of the play are part and parcel of its unadorned charm, and this production goes full-tilt folksy, a powerful, dead-on decision. In his original text, Wilder outlined his preference for conjuring the clop-clop of cow hooves, the clanging of school bells, the clinking of old-fashioned milk bottles and the vocalizations of various farm animals via a tools-in-hand gaggle of off-stage actors. The Gang opts for this live sound effects option, a choice made stronger by the glimpses we catch of the noise-making team through cracks in the curtain when actors enter and exit the mostly bare stage. As we become aware of the human toil happening in the wings, we gain a heightened sense of the townâ€™s cohesiveness as a unified front of neighbors unafraid of dirtying their hands. The women work their gardens, feed their chickens and rear their young, while the men deliver milk, scoop ice-cream, deliver babies, and bang out newspapers. The children study, play sports, help with farm work and shout conversations out bedroom windows in the night. As the inhabitants of Groverâ€™s Corners hustle about, the sound crew must follow suit with clucks, whistles and bangs. Under the inspired direction of Justin Zsebe, the actors exude all the familiar chemistry and inter-connectedness of cheerful townsfolk intent on stepping to the sound of the same drummer. When we meet the Webb and Gibbs families in Act One, weâ€™re simply pleased to know them and walk through a day in their lives. Act Two belongs to one member of each family, a pair of budding lovers, Emily Webb (Vanessa Mizzone) and George Gibbs (Chris Schultz). It is here that the production begins to truly soar, with Mizzone inching up to the bashful yearning in Emilyâ€™s guarded heart, finally letting frustrated tears of longing fall all over her requisite first-date ice cream soda. Mizzone is all elbows and ear-to-ear smiles as her character tries desperately to practice ladylike patience in the courtship game and gets tripped by up her perception of her suitorâ€™s waning attentions. Schultz is equally beguiling in his moving of George from clueless to attentive, presenting a youthful innocence that make us long for a stool in that nostalgic soda shop. Aside from the strong central love story in act two, the production turns out gorgeously quirky human touches on the fringes. Porter is perfectly even-keeled as the Stage Manager throughout, and has a similarly exquisite turn as the soda shop owner. Brian Kimmet brings whole new layers of misery to the role of Simon Stimson, the alcoholic choir master stuck with off-key singers in a life smaller than heâ€™d ever imagined. As Stimson tries over and over to perfect the sad song-stylings of his group, a magnificent full moon illuminates his woe, while simultaneously casting love-light on the window-to-window conversation of George and Emily. When Georgeâ€™s pest of a little sister, Rebecca (Katie Malia) interrupts the chat, some airy acrobatics ensue. Maliaâ€™s creative entrance and exit are nothing short of magical. If Act Two soars, Act Three manages to touch down on another planet. A graveyard populated by some of our former friends suspended on swings and dressed in stark white is simply breathtaking. The living are clad in black, an ominous symbol of our unseeing ignorance and lack of gratitude in this life. The dead are bathed in eye-opening light, and Mizzone breaks our heart when she brings Emily to the realization that both worlds cannot be inhabited simultaneously. If you want to know what Culver City looked like in 1914, go see Our Town at The Actorsâ€™ Gang â€“ thereâ€™s a piece of familiar art work on the playbill. Through June 6 at The Actorsâ€™ Gang, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd. Call 310.838.4264.
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