Ronnie Spilton used to be a high school principal, so she knows how to get people organized and to do what she tells them.
Good thing, because Our Town — the play she's directing this month for Asbury Memorial Theatre — has an extremely large cast. If not for Ronnie Spilton, they might be running around the stage like headless chickens.
Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Our Town, which in three acts depicts average, everyday American life in a small New England town (first produced in 1938, the play is 75 years old in 2013).
One of the best-loved and most-produced dramas in community theater, Our Town is deceptively simple. On the one hand, it's about sweethearts George and Emily, and the arc of their relationship from childhood to death. One another hand, it's about the unexceptional townsfolk of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and their unexceptional interactions.
On a deeper level, it's about the richness of the American life cycle. Yours, mine and everybody we know.
But hey, it's not as depressing as all that.
"As a matter of fact," Spilton points out, "one of the criticisms of the show is that Wilder's depiction of small-town America is very sugar-coated. The only negative character in the show is the choirmaster, who drinks. The playwright doesn't deal with all the undercurrent of small-town life — what's going on behind closed doors."
It's not spoiling things to say that Our Town gives us everything "from womb to tomb" — two of the central events are a wedding and a funeral. What ties everything together is the character of the Narrator — played in this production by Les Taylor — who interacts with the townsfolk while breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.
To ensure the focus remained on his characters and their interactions, Wilder wrote Our Town to be performed without sets, props or costumes. While this is often amended at the discretion of the director, Spilton says she's kept things to a minimum. "It is really tough to bring everyday life alive," she explains. "Our Town shows you daily life, the little mundane things people do, over and over, again and again, and that they're meaningful."
The town itself, with its all-important Main Street, is now set up on the Asbury floor, staged among the audience members. There is a live church choir. "I want people to be excited about Our Town," Spilton explains. "Not just oh, that again?"
So she's has created a more intimate, realistic Grover's Corners. "I have not destroyed this show at all, I've just made a few tweaks," she smiles. "I think Thornton Wilder would be glad."
Others in the Asbury cast include Mary Caitlin McMahon as Emily, Wesley Dasher as George, and a roster of local theater folks like Cheri Hester, Ray Ellis, Charlie Ribbens, Bonnie Terrell, Genie Brazzeal and even weatherman and sometime thespian Pat Prokop.
Our Town is about the significance of enjoying every little moment. "Life is not a dress rehearsal," Spilton keeps telling her cast.
"At the end, Emily looks back and says 'Mama, look at me. Why didn't I realize how important those days were?'"