Queensland Theatre has opened its 2021 season at full capacity in the Bille Brown Theatre with Thornton Wilder’s small-town American classic Our Town, directed by Artistic Director Lee Lewis. First performed in 1938 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Our Town follows the interlocking everyday lives of the citizens of fictional town Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between 1901 and 1913.

The cast of Our Town. Photograph © Pia Johnson

The main character of the play is the Stage Manager, who speaks directly to the audience as he shows them around the small community and introduces the other characters. The set is minimal, and miming replaces props in most instances, so the Stage Manager’s narration is an exercise in audience imagination. From the heliotropes in Mrs Gibbs’ garden to the mountain sunrise and the town’s many churches, Wilder’s script conjures clear imagery, painting the picture of idyllic American small-town life at the start of the 20th century. The play is divided into three acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity – and focuses on the Gibbs and Webb families as children grow up, dreams are realised or put aside, babies are born, people die, and life goes on, as it always has.

A metatheatrical work, Our Town is not truly set in Grover’s Corners but in the theatre where it is being performed, and Queensland Theatre’s production includes nods to the present day and the pandemic. The actors entered wearing masks, bumped elbows instead of shaking hands and, in the opening scene, the Stage Manager approached a ghost light at centre stage – a symbol of the global theatre closures due to COVID-19, and of hope for reopening.

The Stage Manager drew not only the audience but also the other actors into the play, encouraging them up from the edges of the stage space to take on the roles he described. A cast of 16, with 14 actors onstage and four young actors from the Queensland Theatre Young Artists’ Ensemble alternating the roles of Wally Webb and Rebecca Gibbs, brought the town of Grover’s Corners to life with impressive cohesion. Despite the American setting, the actors spoke in their own voices because, Lee Lewis wrote in her program note, “…sometimes we want to travel through a play and sometimes we want to find the play in us”.

The large cast moved smoothly around each other and, in several cases, in and out of different roles. Jimi Bani brought his magnetic, infectious energy to the role of the Stage Manager, drawing the eye even from the side of the stage, smiling and nodding as the actors began to embody their Grover’s Corners characters. Lucy Heathcote delivered a standout performance as Emily Webb, moving many in the audience to tears as Emily relived the simple pleasures of her 12th birthday from beyond the grave. Heathcote’s nervous, emotional energy in the role was perfectly complemented by Jayden Popik’s grounded and easy-going characterisation of George Gibbs.

Libby Munro and Amy Lehpamer played Mrs Gibbs and Mrs Webb, and Lehpamer’s singing was a beautiful addition to emotive moments in the work. The onstage chemistry between the two women as they wrangled their children and shared gossip, dreams, and advice was excellent, as were the moments of quiet emotion and reflection on parenting, children, and marriage. Alongside them, Hugh Parker and Colin Smith both brought paternal and professional gravitas to the roles of Mr Webb and Dr Gibbs, respectively.

Anthony Standish was angry and cynical as troubled town drunk Simon Stimson, even in the afterlife, while Egan Sun-Bin brought a warm and cheerful energy to the role of Howie Newsome, making the audience laugh with his “horse” Bessie. Roxanne McDonald’s spot-on comedic timing transitioned easily between her roles as the paper boys and town gossip Mrs Soames, Andrew Buchanan was energetic as Professor Willard and Sam Craig, and Silvan Rus brought a considered step and serious tone to the stage as Constable Warren. Luca Klarwein embodied quiet and thoughtful Wally Webb, and Ava Ryan was bright and talkative as Rebecca Gibbs, full of youthful energy as she pestered her older brother.

Innovative sound design and composition by THE SWEATS included actors at the edge of the stage creating sounds of milk bottles clinking, doors slamming, and even breakfast being chewed, although the sets and props became more real as the play progressed. Costuming designed by Nathalie Ryner also became more literal to include a wedding dress, drugstore uniform, priest’s garb and more. Lighting design by Paul Jackson began the play on a high note, as Bani approached the ghost light on the empty stage, and was used effectively to create and change the setting, especially in the final act. 

Our Town is a celebration of community life and shared humanity that leaves us not with benign hope, but with an urgency to look our loved ones full in the face, to stop and smell the heliotropes, and to savour and appreciate the full scope of moments in our beautifully ordinary lives.

Our Town plays at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane until 20 February 20

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