The beautiful Mockingbird on Main in downtown Davenport keeps rocking it with new (original), passionate productions by local artists.
Their latest, Alex Richardson’s “Their Town” (a modern adaptation of the classic “Our Town”) is a shining example of what all theater should be (and too often is not) — bold, innovative, creative, thought-provoking, excellently acted, emotional and NEW!
I just love everything about this show, including the pain of not getting a happy ending. It takes chances; it’s funny, sad, and just about every feeling in between, and if you are human at all, you will relate to at least one of its many, many characters.
The first brilliant move the prolific, 28-year-old Richardson (here director, playwright, sound and projection designer) makes is transforming the “stage manager” role of the play’s inspiration, the iconic “Our Town.”
Thornton Wilder’s original 1938 Pulitzer winner takes place in fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H., between the years of 1901 and 1913. It’s a play within a play, and the stage manager acts as narrator, speaking directly to the audience.
In “Their Town” (the eighth original play Richardson has had staged, and 14th he’s directed), the narrator is split into wise, warm guides “He” and “She,” perfectly played with calm confidence and poise by Adam Cerny and Taylor Gravert.
Ideal for (but not written for) this 37-seat, cabaret-style venue (with glittering, elegant light fixtures), Cerny and Gravert also quickly become a whole host of other roles in the vignette-form production. While they’re normally dressed in concert-style black and white, the pair easily put on outfits draped on stage – a shawl here and a hoodie there — to help become other characters.
Richardson wrote in the program – only available online – that part of why he wanted to update “Our Town” (listen for the title’s mention in dialogue) was because the action of the original is more than a century removed and feels awfully remote. He maintains the central message of Wilder: do not take life for granted; enjoy what you have before it’s gone — but makes everything else more contemporary.
He set the first act of “Their Town” in June 2019 and it first premiered at Playcrafters in Moline in early 2020, just before COVID shutdowns. It’s still set then, with the second half six months later. The only reference to the pandemic is the December 2019 appearance of a virus on the opposite end of the world – in response, “people collectively shrugged,” the play says. “What’s that got to do with me?”
“Their Town” still includes the young protagonists Emily and George, who take a different, tumultuous turn, and the deeply meaningful story has everything to do with us.
The 20-something couple (he a traditional farm boy who wants to settle down in their town, and she a feisty, modern woman who wants to get out in a better life) are wonderfully embodied by the 20-year-old Drew DeKeyrel and 25-year-old Brittany Anderson. They are so natural and convincing in their parts, which truly make the characters come alive and you’re invested in Emily and George.
One of the many dramatic highlights of the show is after the wedding of college friends, when they dance, get drunk and have a knock-down, drag-out argument about whether or not to get married and have a family. George bought his parents’ farm without telling Emily and he’s hopelessly in love with her.
Emily is dying to get out of this dying, declining place (an unnamed Midwestern town), saying if she stays, it’s like admitting defeat. They’ve lived their whole lives there and it’s heartbreaking to watch this brutal fight, which takes on even weightier resonance as Emily looks back in the last act.
Emmalee Hillburn plays the super sarcastic, cynical DJ Michelle, herself beaten down by struggles at her declining radio station. Like the other actors here, she totally owns the role — and in the second act, Hillburn is mesmerizing in an extended monologue, about the rise and fall of her career (she’s in her late 40s). She got the radio gig after a high school prank (when she did morning announcements) and is dying herself in the graveyard shift, midnight to 6 a.m., tired of doing the same thing over and over.
Alisha Hanes is the no-nonsense Cierra, a 42-year-old divorced mother of two, looking for a job and a new lease on life. She is very down-to-earth and relatable, and one of the play’s many highlights is a meditative scene she shares with Louie Fischer, making his acting debut as the gruff Bernard, who was forced by his family to move into a retirement home after his wife’s death.
A simple scene as the two of them sit and talk in a park (Bernard takes his shoes off and says “I hope I remember you tomorrow”) is tender and poignant.
Fischer solidly captures the frustrations of growing old and wanting to maintain independence. Earlier, he and Gravert as his daughter bicker about the pros and cons of Bernard staying in his home. That is a hard topic anyone with retired parents can identify with.
While “Their Town” is truly an ensemble show (with no clear lead role), Gravert and Cerny seem to have the most stage time, simply due to the litany of parts they play. Both have spectacular, magnetic stage presences — she has a consistently dazzling smile, electric energy and variety of authoritative accents, and he has a direct, always affecting manner, with large, soulful eyes that can express so much even when Cerny doesn’t say a word.
The closing scene of the play alone is worth the price of admission (which is generously “Pay what you can”), set in an afterlife where the dead wait to go to their eternal rest in a DMV-like setting. That last scene — with Gravert alone describing the result of a power outage where the town can finally see the blissfully starlit sky.
The Mockingbird goes dark and Richardson with his expert light crew (Tristan Tapscott and Doug Kutzli) flood nearly the entire theater with a deep blue tint and tons of stars. It’s the very definition of breathtaking.
Do not miss your chance to see this smart, thoughtful, compassionate play. It continues Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Mockingbird on Main, 320 Main St., Davenport. For more information, click HERE.