Our Town’ bodes well for DePaul’s Theatre School

Although students have been traversing its halls for about two months now, The Theatre School had its big reveal this weekend with the premiere of “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s classic period piece about American life in the early 20th century. To add to the excitement, DePaul has invited big-name alums like John C. Reilly, Gillian Anderson and Mary Grill to perform alongside students as one of the “Stage Managers,” or on-stage narrators. With these special guests, and “Our Town’s” large cast that includes students and even professors for some small roles, the production felt inclusive, like a welcoming of sorts, and a sign of greater things to come.

The choice of “Our Town” as the debut production for the new Theatre School runs contrary to expectation. It is characteristically bare-bones in terms of design and staging; there are no sets beyond tables and chairs. There are no props either – actors must mime all their actions whether they are preparing meals, delivering milk or playing the organ. The lack of visually striking sets that have accompanied past Theatre School productions may initially be offputting to audiences, but there is a method to the mundanity. As a playwright, Wilder was renowned for his interest in existentialist themes, as well as his emphasis on audience engagement and interaction. The Stage Manager, a role split between Sean Wiberg and that night’s alumni guest, acts as the play’s narrator, frequently breaking the fourth wall and referencing imaginary scenery and landmarks in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners. In the first act, audience members themselves are selected to read small lines that the Stage Manager responds to, making for a more interactive experience. This narration and participation means the minimalist stage design detracts little from the performance, and draws more attention to the actors and the story.

While the story utilizes a large cast in order to broaden the scope of the plot, the focal point is on two neighboring families, the Gibbs’ and Webbs, whose children fall in love and get married. In the span of “Our Town’s” three acts, we see Emily Webb and George Gibb grow up, get married and eventually become separated after Emily dies in childbirth. Alissa Walker, who plays Emily, manages the role of precocious adolescent well, with all the uncertainty and anxiety that comes with such an age, and believably makes a reluctant transition into adulthood. Nathan Simpson, who portrays George, displays equal aptitude in his role, and especially nails the East Coast accent that tints each character’s dialogue.

While the central characters’ romance develops, the lives of Grover’s Corners’ other townspeople seem to revolve around it to an extent. The marriage brings the small village together, and subsequently highlights the eccentric, relatable personalities of the townspeople. In the third act, when they are once again brought together for Emily’s funeral, we learn of the characters who also passed on in the nine years prior, deepening their individual narratives and making for an emotional conclusion. Some standout characters in this sequence include Tiffany Oglesby as Mrs. Gibbs, Arie Irabor as the cold and distant Mrs. Webb, David Giannini as the suicidal choir director Simon Stimson, and the comically reliable Howie Newsome, played by Max Stewart. The way in which Grover’s Corners’ inhabitants coalesce into a living, breathing community is a testament to each actor’s impressive chops as performers.

With the opening of the new building, DePaul’s Theatre School has been thrust into the spotlight. If this first production is any indication, though, it’s clear that the program deserves every accolade. Choosing the understated “Our Town” as the debut show was indeed a brilliant move, allowing for easy integration of alumni as guests, but more importantly, showcasing the sheer talent that The Theatre School has become renown for fostering.