When Thornton Wilder's iconic American drama "Our Town" debuted in 1938 with little in the way of scenery or props, it surprised everyone with its bare-bones staging. This Friday, Oct. 7, when the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company revives the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, it'll take that minimalism one step further: There won't even be any stage, per se.
The troupe has decided to take its "Our Town" outdoors as its annual "movable production," asking audience members to follow its actors around the sides of the 150-year-old Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in downtown Ellicott City.
"I particularly thought that this play would take to the space where we perform," comments troupe founder and artistic director Ian Gallanar, who is also directing the production. "Because this is a play about memories and about things that are there and not there at the same time.
"We perform in a building that's not really a building — it's just a bunch of walls without a ceiling. It's kind of a memory of a building that used to be. And I thought that might be a nice visual connection."
Over the past nine seasons, the classical drama troupe has virtually cornered the summer outdoor theater market with its popular "Shakespeare in the Ruins" productions. Still, the idea of staging outdoor shows under the less predictable conditions of fall was a risky one.
Chilly weather aside, the productions have become very popular, says the Columbia resident.
"We tend to sell out most performances. For one thing, the seating capacity is limited because when you're moving people around in these small areas there's just not enough room for everybody.
"But people have reacted very strongly to this, because they talk about how it's theater like they've never seen it before. It's not sitting in an auditorium and looking straight ahead. It's unique."
"Our Town" tells the story of a family living in a small Massachusetts town at the turn of the last century. It is told via a narrator, who breaks the "fourth wall" and directly addresses the audience, who introduces us to two of the town's residents as they are about to get married, George Gibbs and Emily Webb.
It's a wistful, thought-provoking work that addresses aging, early death and how quickly life goes by. Although Gallanar had been familiar with the play for most of his life, he says he didn't come to fully appreciate it until he himself had some life experience to draw upon to grasp its central themes.
"It's a play that even people who have got a very limited connection to theater somehow know about. I looked at it again when we were looking for a non-Shakespeare play to do this fall. And I was very moved by the play and found it to be nothing like my memory of it."
Gallanar's memory of "Our Town," he says, was that, "It was a sweet little play about a young couple" and the inherent sweetness of the townsfolk. But this time out, he found it was nothing of the sort.
"I found it to be a very powerful play about how fast time moves through our lives and how our lives go from one place to another without us taking any time to look at what's around us."
Gallanar says he thinks one reason the play finally hit home with him, so to speak, is that he just turned 50.
"Life is sort of feeling like it's moving past pretty quickly these days. I sort of connected to the play because of my personal situation."
Bringing "Our Town" to a troupe primarily trained in doing Shakespeare presented a different sort of challenge. Where Gallanar and his actors might previously have spent the first part of their rehearsals interpreting the Bard's words, here they found the plainspoken text deceptively facile.
"With this play you know what the characters are saying right out of the gate, so I thought, 'Well, what do we do now in the rehearsal?' "
"And the answer is that we spend time trying to recreate real people talking to each other in a way that rings true."
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performs "Our Town" Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m., and Sundays 5 p.m., Oct. 7-30, at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. Theater-goers are advised to dress warmly, bring flashlights and be prepared to walk up the hill to the Patapsco Female Institute, since there will be no shuttle service available. Admission is $28-$36, general, with discounts for senior citizens and students under age 25. Call 410-313-8861 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.