A moving 'Our Town' — literally

Those straightforward, honest folks of Grover's Corners are back, waiting for the milkman, smelling the heliotrope, attending choir practice, falling in love. And, of course, making their way to the local cemetery.

In this case, the characters who populate Thornton Wilder's enduring play "Our Town" are reliving their experiences not in a traditional theater but on the grounds of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park atop an Ellicott City hillside. It's a mostly effective example of a cool concept practiced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company called a "movable production."

During its summer season, the company uses the park for outdoor performances set up in the expected manner — a fixed stage area, audience in front. During the fall season, everything is in motion. The action progresses from spot to spot in and around the ruins that fill the site, and the audience moves accordingly, often ending up mere inches away from the actors.

The atmosphere at the venue, visually speaking, provides an understandable draw. Meteorologically speaking, it can provide unwelcome drawbacks. But if you're suitably outfitted for any nocturnal chill and prepared to clamber through the ruins (the "movable" element actually starts with the hike up the hill from the parking lot), it's a breeze.

Speaking of breeze, on the night I attended "Our Town," brisk winds through the trees caused enough noise to drown out some lines of dialogue, but the resulting cascade of leaves added an artistic touch. So did the moon, rising as if on cue, and the flicker of stars — all mentioned in the play itself.

The production, guided by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company founding artistic director Ian Gallanar, doesn't quite tug at the heartstrings, but it communicates the play's key messages of shared, fragile humanity.

There's an unavoidable loss of tension whenever everyone heads to another location; this proves most damaging in Act 3. The opening cemetery scene in that act works wonderfully, held in a creepy corner of the ruins, framed by the remaining walls of a chapel. Gallanar stages this scene in absorbing (one might even say haunting) fashion. But the decision to then move back outside for the finale kills the mood and the pacing.

An interior space serves nicely for the passage in Act 2 when young George Gibbs and Emily Webb have their spat and make up over an ice cream soda. The subsequent wedding scene also clicks beautifully, with audience members and actors lined up together on a long staircase to watch the nervous couple.

The cast, sporting evocative costumes (by Marilyn Johnson) and an uneven assortment of New England (or thereabouts) accents, is headed by Dave Gamble as the Stage Manager. He gives an assured portrayal, never overdoing the folksiness. He communicates easily and genuinely, making the elimination of the fourth wall seem a thoroughly natural practice.

Noah Bird captures the boyish side of George at the start of the play quite tellingly, and goes on to trace the character's development with a good deal of nuance. As Emily, Kelsey Painter is rather monochromatic, even a little hard-edged at times, but she does sensitive work in the final act.

Michael P. Sullivan (Dr. Gibbs) and Jenny Leopold (Mrs. Gibbs) flesh out their roles vividly. Ron Heneghan and Lesley Malin are likewise well-matched and colorful as Mr. and Mrs. Webb.

The youngest members of the supporting cast don't entirely measure up, but the others prove reliable. James Jager does a particularly charming turn as Howie. Frank Mancino has great fun as the quaintly long-winded Professor Willard.

And Joan Crooks turns Mrs. Soames into a fully three-dimensional figure, from exuberant wedding guest to reflective member of the pushing-up-daisies community that remains forever bound to Grover's Corners.


If you go

"Our Town" will be performed 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 30. Tickets are $15 to $36. Call 410-313-8661, or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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