This year marks the 125th birthday of playwright Thornton Wilder, and Dallas Theater Center is celebrating with a new production of his classic Our Town that looks and sounds a lot more like how our actual towns do today.
Translated passages by Nilo Cruz and Jeff Augustin mean that about 20 percent of the production is presented in Spanish, with supertitles projected on either side of the Kalita Humphreys stage. During the February 5 and 6 performances, live Spanish translation of the entire play was available through headsets.
Essentially, in this production, the Webb family is now Latinx while the Gibbs family is Black, and it's a casting change that blends beautifully into the examination of everyday life, love, and connection on which Wilder's 1938 play has built its revered reputation.
Director Tatiana Pandiani, who also currently serves as the associate director for the national Broadway tour of What the Constitution Means to Me by Heidi Schreck, notes in the program that Our Town is about "the eternal and the ephemeral...a constant reminder that we are here, and then suddenly we are not."
Indeed, the show's plot does feel eerily reminiscent of this unpredictable limbo we've all been existing in for the past two years.
Guided by the Narrator (Liz Mikel), the audience gets glimpses into the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Grovers Corners, New Hampshire. It's a simple small town where the biggest drama is the not-so-secret alcoholism of the church's choir director.
Young Emily Webb (newly minted Brierley Resident Acting Company member Christina Austin Lopez) and George Gibbs (Zachary J. Willis) grow from schoolyard pals to nervous newlyweds, while wholesome and charming townsfolk flit in and out of their story.
Then comes the third act. Emily has died in childbirth, and from her spot in the cemetery she begs to return to the land of the living for just one day. An ordinary day, she pleads with the Narrator, so she can fully appreciate all that she's lost. But the pain is too great, and Emily realizes how sad it is that most people will never be able to understand the treasures that they already possess in friends and family.
Pandiani's production is stark, with the warmth flowing from the performances instead of the design elements.
Mikel, a Dallas treasure who will be starring on Broadway later this year in the new revival of 1776, is the ideal choice for the Narrator (who, not for nothing, is typically played by an older white man). She's known for her instant connections with audiences, and getting to address them directly is right in her wheelhouse.
Lopez switches wonderfully between childish innocence and exuberance and sudden adult pain and understanding, though Willis isn't quite up to her level.
As for the adults, Kenneisha Thompson projects quiet strength as Mrs. Gibbs while David Lugo brings affable humor as Mr. Webb. Brierley members Alex Organ and Molly Searcy do loads with their more periphery roles, while Madison Bryant is adorable as George's little sister, Rebecca.
It was originally announced that all cast members would wear masks while onstage, but that requirement seems to not be applicable anymore. Audience members, however, are still required to mask up while in the building.
Dallas Theater Center's production of Our Town runs through February 20 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.