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Our Town

TORONTO, ON - I have never thought that Vancouver rain would be something I would miss, but a week spent walking about downtown Toronto, alternatively freezing any exposed extremities and then being baked in overheated buildings, has made me actually miss Vancouver’s weather. However the weather vagaries have been more than compensated for by the range of theatre experiences available in Toronto.

This week Soulpepper Theatre Company opens its first two productions in the new Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Established in 1997 as a classical repertory theatre company, Soulpepper has established itself as a major theatrical force in Toronto. This new Centre, in the historic Distillery district provides the company with a permanent home and a base for their educational and outreach programs. The Centre is so new that there was no signage up to indicate where on the Distillery site the theatre was located.

Dropped off on Mill Street we emerged from the taxi into bitingly cold gusts of wind and fine flakes of snow. Wanting to pick up our tickets before dinner, we wandered, shivering, among oddly numbered buildings, looking desperately for building 49. For those of you who are visiting the Centre before signs are posted, from the Mill Street entrance, take the first alley to the left and keep going! Later as we made our way back to the theatre for the show, we were hailed by several groups of people who were wandering around lost. They noted our purposeful strides as we hurried through the falling snow and figuring that we knew where we were going, joined us. So we arrived as a little convoy, gratefully entering the warmth of the theatre foyer.

The Centre has three theatres: the largest Baillie Theatre with about 320 seats was where we saw “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. Smaller theatres, the Young (about 200 seats) and the black box 100 seat space provide a variety of facilities for teaching and productions. These are available for rent- nice for other small independent companies.

I was really impressed by the production of “Our Town”, a play which I have not seen before. Strange, since it’s been called “America’s most read and most produced play!” Although we actually saw the show in preview, the performances were uniformly solid. First produced in 1938, the meta-theatricality of a play about a play, minimalist scenery and the Stage Manager’s ongoing direct address to the audience must have been quite innovative at the time. Wilder got a Pulitzer Prize for this play, one of three he won, according to the program notes.

The play describes life in Grovers Corners, a small town, population around two thousand. The first act introduces the families and other characters, during a single day in the life of the town, foreshadowing events to come; the second focuses on love and marriage and the third on death. Unfortunately the ultimate message seems to be that the living are actually oblivious to life and it’s better to be dead. The staging was minimalist, in keeping with the text: As the SM says, according to my on-the-ball play going companion, ” for those of you who like a little scenery…” and very effective. The third act with the town’s dead in the cemetery was quite stunning. The characters were seated rigidly upright. Mother Gibbs, played by Nancy Palk, in contrast to her earlier persona maintained so eerie and expressionless a façade that one could almost believe she was a ghost. The young children who played Rebecca Gibbs, the Crowell boys and Wally Webb were amazingly good. All in all an excellent evening of theatre. Can’t wait to see ‘The Government Inspector” on the weekend.