Not only did the prolific East Moline playwright Alexander Richardson update the iconic “Our Town.”
“Our Town” is a 1938 three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.
Throughout, Wilder uses theatrical devices, setting the play in the actual theater where it’s being performed, and a main character is the stage manager of the theater, who directly addresses the audience.
Richardson’s “Their Town” updates things considerably (including placing the action in the present), and it originally did two full weekends at Playcrafters, with the last performance the first weekend of March 2020, just before COVID shutdowns. “Their Town” presents life, marriage, and death in a small Midwestern town. A day and a night go by as people just try to get by in the new century.
“I love and hate ‘Our Town’,” Richardson, 28, said this week. “I love the core message, which is ‘Enjoy your life, take stock of where you are’ – which is such a good and important message.”
He doesn’t like that the show is old and long, and takes so many actors to put on.
“The message is important, so I wanted to tell the story with not 30 actors,” Richardson joked. “What I incorporated is the overall feeling of the original – which is a small, quaint little town where people are having normal, day-to-day problems.”
“Their Town” features Brittany Anderson (Emily), Drew DeKeyrel (George), Emmalee Hillburn (Michelle), Adam Cerny (He), Taylor Lynn Gravert (She), Louie Fischer (Bernard) and Alisha Hanes (Cierra).
More characters than Emily die
Several characters die in “Their Town,” not just Emily like in “Our Town.” Richardson revised the original stage manager role, splitting it into a male and female (“He” and “She”), and they play other roles of townspeople. They still act as narrators, and put costumes on in front of the audience – maintaining Wilder’s original “play within a play” feel.
“Their Town” is more about the journey than the destination, he said.
“They’re going through tumultuous changes in their life,” Richardson said, noting George splits up with his girlfriend, and becomes a couple with Emily.
“It’s about the pandemic and it’s not about the pandemic,” Tapscott said. “What people realized during that time, when you had a lot of time to reflect on things.”
Richardson originally set the show in 2019, and then COVID happened, and he saw he foreshadowed the pandemic in it. “It is very much about those feelings of, we should take stock of where we are and appreciate what we have, because it could always be worse,” he said.
He changed the first act, to flesh it out, and kept the original acts two and three, adding visual projections. It’s more where characters are at emotionally, showing signature images, video, a map, lines and characters’ inner monologues.
“It’s more about the projection this time around,” Richardson said, noting they are used all throughout the Mockingbird space.
“There’s so much potential there, and I feel theaters don’t utilize that in theater-making,” he said.
In “Our Town,” Emily concentrates on her role as wife and mother (which the playwright says is a valid lifestyle), but she doesn’t marry in “Their Town,” and is more modern and independent.
“I think more women today don’t go for that – they want to be their own independent person,” Richardson said.
Instead of a specific town (Grover’s Corners in “Our Town”), “Their Town” takes place in an unnamed Midwestern town.
Compared to the Playcrafters version, Richardson also changed the radio DJ from a man to a woman, here played by Emmalee Hillburn.
Intimacy of the space
Elizabeth Melville directed the Playcrafters version, and Richardson is directing this one, his first time at Mockingbird.
“I love how intimate this space is,” he said of the 40-seat, cabaret-style theater. “There’s absolutely nowhere for the actors to hide when they’re on stage. They are sometimes three feet away from audience members. I love the intimate feeling that creates. You can’t help but get sucked into these scenes.”
“Every single show I’ve worked on, that’s what I have loved the most – how close things are here,” Richardson said. He premiered his last play, “Your Better Self,” at the Mockingbird in June and co-starred in co-owner Tristan Tapscott’s two-person adaptation of “Around the World in 80 Days” in March 2022.
“Their Town” is being produced and designed by Mockingbird co-founders Savannah Bay Strandin and her fiance, Tapscott.
Richardson asked Tapscott to physically expand the stage. It’s to give more breathing room for the actors, though “Their Town” doesn’t usually have more than three people on stage at any time.
In “Our Town,” Emily returns in the afterlife, and Richardson brings that back in his version.
“What I love most about the original ‘Our Town’ is that third act, where it’s her in the afterlife, revisiting her life,” he said. “It doesn’t get better than that. That is, I think, some of the best theater I’ve ever seen, regardless of the production – no matter how bad the first two acts are.
“Once you get to the end, that final third act is always a knockout,” Richardson said. “I wanted to retain as much of the feeling of that as possible, while making it kind of new and fresh. Thornton Wilder did it perfectly; I wanted to do my version of it.”
Who are Emily and George?
The young couple, Emily and George, are played by young actors — Brittany Anderson, a 25-year-old graduate of Rock Island High and Illinois State, and Drew DeKeyrel, a 20-year-old Orion High grad.
“Their Town” is Anderson’s first QC community theater show. She saw “Around the World” and “Your Better Self” (which Anderson said blew her away).
“It’s amazing,” Anderson said of “Their Town.” “I am blown away by everybody’s talent and honored to be here. It’s just really exciting.”
DeKeyrel starred in his high school’s “Little Shop of Horrors” (Seymour), and in 2019 was in Playcrafters’ “She Kills Monsters,” produced by Richardson. He was later in Playcrafters’ “Rabbit Hole” and “Dog Sees God,” and was asked by Richardson to play George for “Their Town.”
“I didn’t have many people show up for auditions; it’s hard to get people to audition these days,” Richardson said.
“I was elated, because I had planned on auditioning,” DeKeyrel said, noting he saw the Playcrafters “Their Town.”
“I’ve been in three Playcrafters productions and was comfortable there, and I should probably branch out to other theater productions, since I like doing theater,” he said.
He called Mockingbird “such a niche, little, intimate space. I was surprised at how small the stage was and thought, ‘That would be interesting,’” DeKeyrel said, noting he saw the original “Their Town,” with a stage at least three times larger than Mockingbird.
No overlap in cast
None of the Playcrafters cast is in the new version, Richardson said, with the same number of characters.
“What I love most about working on shows multiple times – like Shakespeare productions – is you can do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ 30 different ways with 30 different casts, and every single one of those will be fantastic,” he said. “I love what individuals bring to the roles they’re in.
“No one else in the world can play the role the way they do,” Richardson said. “I love bringing in as many new voices as I can.”
He was ecstatic after the first read-through of “Their Town,” to see how the current cast perfectly fit their parts.
“It’s a new space, so I’m always a little nervous, but it’s a comfortable space,” DeKeyrel said.
The projections help amplify and complement what the actors do, Anderson said.
“It’s just really cool, because it feels like there are points where I feel people are in my head, and it’s really cool,” she said. “What I’m emoting up there, it’s very clear, and it’s a cool, more introspective, intimate way that you wouldn’t get from just me being up there. You get the whole experience of what the character is feeling.”
Richardson also draws the audience in with projections, by having them read and interpret what’s being shown, as opposed to listening to an audio of an interior monologue.
“It forces them to be a little more engaged,” he said of the audience. With Michelle the DJ, every time she’s on stage, there’s projection of a clock, since she’s in a midlife crisis.
“To her, the only thing she can focus on is the time she’s spending,” Richardson said.
Show moral is the same
He hopes the ultimate moral “Their Town” is the same as “Our Town” – for people to reflect on and appreciate their lives.
“I think this is better than the original,” DeKeyrel said, noting he was in “Our Town” at Orion.
The new version plays a more old-fashioned, farm boy George against the more modern, abrasive Emily, Richardson said. In the original, Emily is so polite and proper – “why not Emily a little more crass and make some rude jokes?” he said
“He’s brilliant,” Tapscott said of Richardson said. “The appeal was, he had done so many rewrites, it wasn’t the same carbon copy was what Playcrafters had done. He’s brilliant, so when he sends me a script, I don’t even have to read it. It’s like, your name’s on it, I’ll do it. I’m like the Manny Azenberg to his Tom Stoppard.”
“Their Town” will hit The Mockingbird on Sept. 23, 24, 29, 30 and Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. The Mockingbird has a “Pay What You Can” model and guests can pay via cash or Venmo at the door. No reservations are required at this time.
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