The Justice Theater Project introduced its new season and its new home this past weekend as it opened Thornton Wilder’s classic three-act play, Our Town. As did I when I heard about it, you may be asking, “Why is the Justice Theater Project doing Our Town?” The show is the first of the three-show 2010-11 season, whose theme is “Home and Community.” The classic theater work opened Friday night at the Clare Hall, on the grounds of St. Francis of Assisi, on Leesville Road in North Raleigh. The church will be the home of the JTP for the next few years.

As all those who are familiar with it know, Our Town is not so much a play about people as it is a play about place and time. The time is the turn of the century, and by that we mean the turn of the twentieth century. “Our Town” is Grover’s Corners, NH, in the year 1901. Stop and think: there is electricity but no running water (except for hand pumps); the streets are dirt, no sidewalks; no cars during act 1, too many cars by the end of the show, a dozen years later. The main source of news is the newspaper, a biweekly publication run by Editor Webb (Jack Prather). The Webb household is one of the two centered upon in Grover’s Corners; the other is the house of the town’s doctor, Doc Gibbs (Stephen LeTrent). Doc and his wife (Suzannah Hough) and kids, George (Lucas Campbell) and Rebecca (Kate Brittain), live right next door to the Webb household, which is run by Mrs. Webb (Megan Mazzocchi), and houses another two kids, Emily (Ali Hammond) and Wally (Brian Driskill).

The whole of the play is overseen by the Stage Manager (J. Chachula), a sort of father-figure narrator who keeps the play rolling and gives commentary on what is going on in town. He also gets to play the drugstore shopkeep and one of the many pastors who people Grover’s Corners. It is the Stage Manager who sets the tone for the play, presenting a friendly and knowledgeable voice that could not be better done by anyone than Chachula. The only thing more I could have asked for would be a gentle New England accent.

The entirety of the show is peopled by a scant 22 people, a number that seems small only when you realize that this cast manages to populate a town of 2000 folks. The ensemble cast includes the church choir of 10 and their director, Simon Stimson (Ian Finley). It also encapsulates the entirety of the Grover’s Corners cemetery, who witness the burial of Emily Webb Gibbs in act 3. This ensemble could not have been better. The tone is captured wholly and uniquely by this cast, who take us back in a time capsule over one hundred years with the ease and steady hand of a master.

Because the play is so much dependent on tone and not character, the biggest thing to note is that most of the play is done in pantomime. This is true in every case for a production of Our Town, for the introduction of completely cooked meals and a live horse onstage would completely upstage the show otherwise. Which makes it worth mentioning that, in this production, Emily’s visit in act 3 back to the world of the living is done on a perfectly real set that, up until it is unveiled, hides behind a curtain upstage center. The complete kitchen of the Webb household is encapsulated in this one scene, complete with real stove, icebox, freshly delivered milk, and real cups for the coffee. This addition to the show — a JTP original and brain storm of director Kevin Ferguson and set designer Lexie Nichols* — makes the ghostly visit of act 3 that much more poignant and deserves a special mention for its WOW appeal and perfect execution.

The Justice Theater Project continues its opening play for the 2010-11 season through September 26 — for details, see our calendar. It is a supremely well thought-out production, smoothly and quietly (quite a compliment for this show) performed by this ensemble. This one is well worth the trip. The directions to St. Francis of Assisi (linked from the church’s website) are quite easy for those who wish to see a truly well done tribute to Thornton Wilder’s nod to a simpler time.

*Updated 9/15/10: “Just a brief clarification…: The concept of the current Raleigh showing of Our Town is based on the aesthetics of  the Off Broadway production by David Cromer at the Barrow St. Theatre. Although our version has many differences and nuances that are not in the Cromer version, the concept of using present day clothing with the shadow box ending is his.” – Melissa Zeph, JTP “