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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

OUR TOWN (article first published : 2005-05-4)

Opening this evening at the Courtyard Theatre on the Steve Biko campus of the Durban Institute of Technology (DIT) is a gem of a 55-minute play from the Drama Studies department.

In Allen M Auld’s sure directorial hands, this is a scaled-down version of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning classic play, Our Town. It is perfect for young and comparatively inexperienced performers as it deals with a wide range of emotions. Allen has skilfully – and drastically! - cut the original script so that it holds the audience’s attention while losing none of the essence of the beautifully-drawn action, gentle humour, poignant observations and descriptive narrative of a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. People are born and people die. Life goes on.

Thornton Wilder is most famous for Our Town which was first produced on Broadway in 1938, followed by a motion picture a few years later. There have been several Broadway revivals since then – once featuring Paul Newman – and a number of television performances. The play is a highly popular choice for high schools or tertiary drama departments. In his programme notes, Allen states: “The production encompasses time and social history, memory and identity, family and community, spirituality and death; in other words, the entire universe and beyond--and yet its action is as simple as drawing a single breath.”

While the play is set in America, Allen has wisely not expected his cast to produce American accents and I am delighted to say that all his performers are articulate and understandable. I think the play loses a bit by its transference to a South African situation - I would have accepted English accents in an American setting.

Imagination plays an important part in this play and the severity of the bare black stage and backdrops is lightened by a set of white table and chairs either side. These represent the homes of the Gibbs and the Webbs – nicely controlled and sustainable performances from Mondli Mabaso (who I believe had to learn the part at extremely short notice!), Nomfezeko Mjwara, Lungani Ncobo and Zama Cele. Their two children – George and Emily – begin to have feelings for each other in high school and eventually marry. Shaun Pearson and Crystal Hodnett handle these roles with maturity and honesty – there is a delightful scene as they talk to each other from their upstairs windows under the balmy glow of the benevolent moon.

Special mention should be made of Eustace Mosia as a delightful milkman; Nadia Essop as George’s enchanting younger sister; Siza Mthembu as the constantly-inebriated choirmaster and S’phiwe Madlala who generated much amusement as the blind Professor Willard. Another performance I thoroughly enjoyed was Nombulelo Zikalala (watch her!) who played Mrs Soams. S’dumo Mtshali as the stage manager/narrator gave a strong performance and his interpretation of the waiter was highly amusing but he lacked the focus that he impressed with in Oedipus Rex.

There is a consistently high and professional level from all the performers and I would dearly like to see this production go forward to another level – perhaps either the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown or the Hilton Arts Festival.

Our Town runs at the Courtyard Theatre until May 7 nightly at 19h00 with an extra matinee on Saturday at 14h00. Tickets R30 (R15 students) booked by phoning 031 204 2194 or 204 2532 or from the door an hour before show time, or e-mail: pamdt@dit.ac.za – Caroline Smart




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