In 1938, Thornton Wilder’s groundbreaking play “Our Town” first appeared in New York City. Its approach to telling the story of a small American town in the early 1900s — no set, minimal props — led it to the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In celebration of the play’s 80th year, Triad Stage is partnering with the UNC School of the Arts to bring the classic to the Hanesbrands Theatre, with previews beginning Feb. 14.
Though there are exceptions, the creative team and cast of “Our Town” is heavily influenced by the School of the Arts. Faculty member Carl Forsman directs the show, with which he has a long history and admiration.
At a first read-through event, Forsman noted that his involvement with theater started in the fourth grade in New Jersey, when he was cast in a production of “Our Town.”
An older fellow actor in that 1982 production, now in his 80s, told the young Forsman that Wilder’s work was “the greatest American play ever written.” It’s an opinion still held by many.
“There are few great American plays that not only reflect who we are, but also reflect who we should become,” Forsman said.
“I love new plays and new ways of doing and seeing,” he said, “but this is a classic for a great reason, and if you’ve never seen it, don’t miss this chance. It’s one of the most moving, enduring depictions of family life ever written.
“The play is a beacon of hope in a time of disconnection, a reminder about kindness in a time that’s not always gentle.”
Though very much an ensemble work, the story circles around George and Emily, a young couple who grow up with the play’s timeline. New York-based Rickey Watson, Jr., a recent UNCSA alum, plays George, and current student Catherine Calloway plays Emily.
As George Gibbs, Watson uses research to help build a character, along with his other tools as an actor.
“My research typically starts with the influences of the time,” he said. “George loves baseball. Influences of his time were great baseball players like Buck Ewing and Cap Anson.”
He will also study the style of the character. “The way he speaks, the way he walks, his fears and beliefs, the things he values the most. Adding all those things together allowed me to see that we weren’t so different after all,” Watson said.
“Luckily for me,” Calloway said, “the early 1900s happens to be one of my favorite time periods to study — bit of a history nerd — so I already had a decent grasp surrounding that time as well as the overall aesthetic and attitude.
“I think when playing any role, but particularly a character that lives in an era I have not personally experienced, it is very important to get into the mindset and the upbringing of that character.”
As Emily, Calloway interacts quite a bit with her parents.
“I have to give a lot of thought into how I would have been raised to speak to my parents,” she said. “How much attitude would I have shown them? Would I kiss them good morning? Questions like that are really key for me to find an authentic character and hopefully give the audience a believable performance.”
Though the actors find costumes a helpful tool in putting themselves into an earlier time, Forsman feels that lighting and the actors themselves are significant.
“Without a set, the actors and the lighting conspire to create the world of the play,” he said. “Lighting really represents nature in the play, largely — the sun and moon and clouds and rain, as it were. The actors invoke the places.”
Also appearing in the cast are NYC-based actors Laurel Casillo, Michael Early, Krystel Lucas and Rajeev Varma. UNCSA student actors include Alex Bodine, Tyler Campbell, Mitch Connelly, Everett Graham, Andrew Hollinger and Devin Kessler. UNCSA professors Josh Foldy and Rick Miller will be joined by local child actors Eliza Brand and Auguste Paul Thielemann.
Cindi Rush is the casting director; Kamilah Bush is the dramaturg.
The technical team includes scenic consultant Natalie Taylor Hart, costume designer Lauren Pennebaker, and lighting design by Robert Perry. Terence Orleans Alexander is the stage manager.
Watson feels that the reason for seeing “Our Town” is fairly simple.
“If you appreciate life, you will love this play,” he said. “If you don’t appreciate life, you will love this play, because it will remind you to appreciate life.”