Danae Hayes, Preston Butler III, and Mitch Burke in "Our Town." (Photo by Susie Sprinkel Hudson, Daily Pilot / November 4, 2010)

Can a play written in 1938 about rural life in the early 20th century — and staged by virtually every high school and collegiate drama department ever since — speak to 21st century audiences with relevancy and immediacy?

If the play is Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," which earned him one of his three Pulitzer Prizes, and the producing entity is Costa Mesa's Vanguard University, the answer is an unqualified "yes." No matter how many times you've seen it, you should avail yourself of the opportunity of experiencing it in an entirely new light before the production closes Sunday.

This show not only clutches at the heart, but also shows off the old classic in a new light. Director Susan K. Berkompas has cast two performers in the role of the stage manager — one male, one female — and they alternately offer cryptic comments about life in the fictional town of Grovers Corners, N.H., circa 1903-13.

That's not the biggest surprise, however. In Berkompas' concept, the key character of Emily Webb — the young girl who marries the boy next door and then dies in childbirth — is blind. No reference is made to her sightlessness, but her condition is obvious, and heart-rending.

The first two acts are presented just as Wilder envisioned them, with zero hand props and the stage business (preparing meals, washing hands, etc.) performed in pantomime. However, in the third act, when Emily makes her one-time-only return to re-experience her 12th birthday, props are abundant, the smell of freshly cooked pancakes pervades — and Emily sees it all.

Berkompas has taken one line of the play, Emily's post-mortem lament about being so blind to people and events around her during her life, and structured a compelling new concept. It succeeds due in no small measure to an extraordinary cast, which for this production is condensed to nine actors, most playing multiple roles.

The demanding role of Emily is achingly rendered by Danae Hayes in the most singularly remarkable performance on the Vanguard stage this year. She is ably supported by Mitch Burke as her farmer/baseball player beau, George Gibbs.

As for the two stage managers, the robust Preston Butler III seems to relish the heavier lines while Tivoli Hudson is a pert, frisky counterpart who handles most of the comedic dialogue. Together, they mesh splendidly as they create a mental picture of a bucolic hamlet from the distant past.

Joey Sims and Sheila Jenkins are solid as Emily's parents, as is Brandon Arias as George's father, the overworked town doctor. An exceptional performance is delivered by Katelyn Spurgin as George's overly emotional mother, while Kelsi Roberts beautifully renders one of the townspeople, the fluttery Mrs. Soames, strikingly real.

Atmospheric excellence abounds in the Vanguard production. Original keyboard music is provided by Michael Fleming, a 17-year-old Newport Beach youth, whose mood-enhancing compositions are reminiscent of the late Jerry Goldsmith. And another student, Jonathan de Roulet, has created a complex lighting design that underscores Wilder's scenario.

Go visit "Our Town" this weekend, if you can secure a ticket. This 72-year-old play still has a good deal of kick left in it, and you'll leave holding your heart.

*

'Becky Shaw' funny but unfulfilling

Seldom has South Coast Repertory wrung so many laughs out of a play that ultimately proves disappointing as the company does with its latest offering, Gina Gionfriddo's dark comedy "Becky Shaw."

The characters are uniformly unlikeable, save for Barbara Tarbuck's feisty mother (who bookends the show and should appear more often). They fire verbal daggers at one another throughout the play and there's no real sense of relief or anticipation at the final fadeout.

What "Becky Shaw" amounts to is a series of one-liners, most calculated to draw comedic blood, culminating in the strangest ending scene imaginable (Saturday's audience had to be prodded into applause at the blackout). Director Pam MacKinnon does her utmost to render these self-centered characters palatable, but it's an uphill process.

To begin with, we don't encounter the title character until well into the second scene. And, while she does rattle a few cages, she's hardly the centerpiece of this offbeat descent into the maelstrom of money and morality.

The play's most memorable character, and also its most unsympathetic, is a financial advisor, Max, played with teeth-baring tenacity by Brian Avers. Max is an adoptive brother of Suzanna (Tessa Auberjonois), and he's best described as a social predator who gets low marks on the "humanity" and "conscience" scales.

Auberjonois adores him, however, yet jumps into a quickie courtship and marriage to Andrew (Graham Michael Hamilton), an office flunky whose quirky companion Becky (Angela Goethals) is recruited as a blind date for Max. Suffice it to say things do not go well.

The play's second act is basically concerned with Suzanna's imploring Max to give Becky a reassuring phone call, an idea Max fervently rejects. Becky, it seems, is damaged goods, physically, mentally and emotionally. Not "good enough" to merit Max's compassion.