All the Feels: Two Plays That Are Sentimental But Not Saccharine

As director Susannah Martin points out in the program for Shotgun Players' production of Our Town, many theatergoers dismiss Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 drama as “a quaint piece of sentimental claptrap.”

Even when it's not getting butchered by high schoolers, the play can seem to beg for a cloying reading, with lines such as, “Almost everybody in the world gets married, you know what I mean? In our town there aren't hardly any exceptions.” Throughout the play, a character called the Stage Manager narrates these and other bits of context about the fictional Grover's Corners, N.H. Wilder supplies an abundance of data about the small town, down to its soil composition, through which he taps into the universal. As the Stage Manager says, beneath its superficial folksiness, the play is really about “the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our doctoring and in our living and our dying,” as seen through the eyes of one soul, both unremarkable and marvelous.

Avant-garde theater favorite Madeline H. D. Brown plays this part, one that both dives into the world of the play then steps back out of it, taking a God view. Brown deftly mimes her actions (the play famously calls for no curtain and no props); when she serves budding lovers Emily Webb (El Beh) and George Gibbs (Josh Schell) ice cream, you can see each scoop's peaks and troughs. In avoiding the show's tendency toward treacle, however, she is less successful, often employing a grating, singsong tone.

Those few missteps, however, highlight just how well Martin elucidates the pure and urgent truths in Wilder's deceptively simple lines. Martin has distinguished herself in the Bay Area with productions such as A Lie of the Mind at the Boxcar Theatre and Assassins, also at Shotgun, as a director who simply brings out the best in the play, without using it as merely a vehicle to make a statement.

Her 14-person ensemble in Our Town makes hummingly alive the seemingly unremarkable interstitial moments that Wilder championed as miracles: the way a husband lustfully lingers, clasping his wife's apron; the wistful, pitying smile of the town drunk when it is he who is to be pitied; the blank, faraway gaze of the dead, long on wisdom and patience but having expended all their joy and sorrow.

Our Town is the perfect non-holiday holiday show in that it evokes feelings of home and idealized home without jamming sugar-coated yuletide gobbledygook down one's throat. Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, now playing at Berkeley Rep, takes a similar tack in filling that problematic holiday season slot. The play is exactly what it advertises: not a story about the pioneering political journalist but a sampling of her delectable quips. Ivans' loving stabs at her native Texas — where as a kid she attended “a debutante ball, or some such other virgin sacrifice” — might have been shocking in her day, when female journalists were all but unheard of outside the society pages. But to Berkeley audiences, those rejoinders are every bit as homey and holy as carols and nativity plays.

While Ivins' piss and vinegar is delicious in its own right, the real draw for many audiences will be the star of this almost one-woman show: the great Kathleen Turner. She masterfully times her beat, volume, and intonation changes to conjure the virtuoso raconteur. At first, she seems to breathlessly voice a thought just for you, and only because she thought it then and there, but, when you listen more closely, it's clear this storyteller has, through years of narrative honing, mastered feigned spontaneity — and the story becomes all the richer for it.

And oh, that voice. Turner deploys her famed baritone sparingly, plumbing its depths perhaps only 10 times in the 75-minute production, but when she does, it opens up the realm of the possible, conjuring new ways a woman can be in the world. Vocally alone, Turner is perfect casting for a spitfire trailblazer like Ivins.

Turner's talent and stature mostly overcome the weaknesses of Margaret and Allison Engel's script. Turner estimates, in an interview in the show's program, that about 70 percent of the script's words are Ivins' own. The other 30 percent feel contrived: wired notices conveniently appear when it's time to tell a new part of the story; a letter to Ivins' father, supposedly the mainspring for her storytelling, never feels important. But if her script is lackluster, Turner still shines — and crackles with wit.

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