Being Caught up Again in Our Living and in Our Dying: Our Town at the Eagle Theatre Breathes New Life

Anthony Cornatzer

  • OnStage New Jersey Columnist

It was a quaint little town. There were so many old stores and shops that had so much history to them that no one acknowledged or ignored—it was just there, it was a part of those who lived there then as much as those who came before.

The town was Hammonton, New Jersey. And that evening on Saturday, June 25th, I came to see a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the increasingly popular Eagle Theatre. Following dinner with my aunt who was accompanying me that evening, we found ourselves strolling around the town and I remember remarking to her before we eventually made our way to the theatre, “This is the perfect place for Our Town.” At the time, I couldn’t understand why, but there was something so subtle and yet so transcending in walking around this old, historic little town…it was almost like a de- ja-vu sort of feeling, a visit amongst the living residents as well as the ghosts of the past that still have left their own indescribable mark there.

Arriving at the theatre, we were greeted by the sound of “oldie”, folk music that created a nice sense of ambience as well as an ironic feeling of remembrance and comfort in considering the Eagle Theatre’s history as an old movie house theater back in the day, before its renovation. We also were offered a first glance to a simplistic lighting and projection design by Chris Miller, that offered a nice layout and map of the town on a scrim, as well as to the scenic design by both Miller and  the director and co-artistic director of the Eagle Theatre, Ted Wioncek III. Both of which throughout the show not only honored Wilder’s vision of the play, but it also offered much more intimacy than the staging of the theatre already lends itself to. 

At the start of the play, in being introduced to the town by our Stage Manager (played by Charlie Delmarcelle) and cast, we  all suddenly learned to our pleasant surprise and delight, that the town was in fact set in this very town of Hammonton, New Jersey—not the original Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire that was the original setting of the play. And with just this subtle change of setting and history, as an audience we were offered that much more not just for entertainment purposes, but also for something far more personal as an organic integration of South Jersey’s history, our history. And thus the play became that much more a part of us.

Set in the very beginning of the twentieth century, we bared witness once more with this brilliant ensemble to retelling of the cycle of life in American society in this little town—but you already know it, don’t you? And in that little town, this town, we were reminded and immersed within our daily life, love and marriage, and in living and dying. And what a fresh perspective this cast offered to such a classic play! And frankly, that itself is much harder to do than most audiences give credit for. This ensemble didn’t let up once in engaging us with their own harmonious chemistry and relationship with one another as well as to the play itself and what it really means. It was such a clear-cut understanding of character, theme, as well as impact amongst all of the actors within this ensemble. What I personally felt contributed and epitomizes a great deal of this harmony was in having the actors visibly from behind the scrim up-stage provide the varying sound effects with whatever props and instruments they had on hand for the proceeding and well-articulated pantomime that would take place throughout the show. Such a subtle implementation and artistic choice very much made the play and production that much more organic and harmonious than it already was.

Delmarcelle as the Stage Manager was a literal breath-taking experience. In such an intricate role, he put a special emphasis on the true stoicism that encompasses this particular Greek chorus. It was a driving force that kept the audience grounded and drew them back in with all that unfolded with the characters within each act. Special recognition also deservedly goes towards the actors of the neighboring parents of Frank and Julia Gibbs (played by Jared Michael Delaney and Deborah Jenkins) and Charles and Myrtle Webb (played by Leonard C. Hass and Mary Lee Bednark); who not only brought unique and extraordinary interpretations to their character and their relationship with each other, but simply put—they were collectively just entertaining all the way through mainly because of their own given idiosyncrasies that they each had and utilized very effectively throughout the show.

And of course, the boy-meets-girl story of George Gibbs (played by Justin Mazzella) and Emily Webb (played by Maggie Griffin-Smith) melted our hearts and crushed it once again, but really to much more extraordinary depths than the characters already lend themselves to. Specifically, there was such an organic and transcending chemistry between the two throughout the show, that it proved as a glaring and bitter-sweet reminder that Our Town is as much an American love story as it is a play about American life. Including the ensemble as a whole, when you have a company of actors that have just such a natural connection between themselves, the play, what it means, and of course the audience—you really do have something special. So, that being said, when you have productions like this of Our Town, it becomes more than just a mediocre ritualization of a classic play; in fact, it becomes something else far more extraordinary in having new life breathed into it, and—like many of us who attended this production—you actually end up learning something completely new that you didn’t even consider.

It isn’t to say that good theatre, or even great theatre, is such a rare thing to find today; but once in a while you get the occasional production with any theatre that is discovered to be a real gem and a true source of communal identity in any given town. And that’s really what this production of Our Town was about; not looking to produce and put on the play “just because”, but really it is a re-evaluation of what Thornton Wilder actually intended in the first place: to be a play about our lives for all times, for all places, and for everyone.

And though, yes, it’s been a solid month since seeing this production, I still find myself getting these amazing flashbacks and recollections of how incredible this production was. But above all else, I’m sure glad it was at the Eagle Theatre, and even more glad that its setting and staging was all in this little town in South Jersey that exists by itself, for itself, and for those who came and gone, and for those who have yet to come in Hammonton, New Jersey.