Manatee Players stage 'Our Town'

Wilder's 75-year old-classic opens this week in the intimate studio theater

mclear@bradenton.comOctober 31, 2013 

In recent years, Manatee Players have focused on musicals, with no plays in their seasons.

In fact, the last straight play Manatee Players produced was "Steel Magnolias" in September 2008.

The musicals-only era comes to an end this week when Manatee Players open "Our Town" at the Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theatre.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Thornton Wilder's masterpiece that, on the surface, is a simple and sad story of small-town America at the turn of the 20th century. It won the Pulitzer Prize when it was new, and it has become one of the most often-produced plays in American theater.

"Every day, somewhere in America, and maybe in other countries too, I don't know, someone is producing 'Our Town,'" said Candace Artim, who's directing the Manatee Players production.

Wilder's script was ground-breaking at the time, and still feels innovative. It calls for the play to be performed without a set, and its most famous character, the Stage Manager, is omniscient and speaks directly to the audience and interacts with the other characters in the play, even after some of them have died.

Although the play has a bucolic tone and setting, it makes profound universal messages, Artim said.

"I think Mr. Wilder, our dear playwright, wanted to remind us to stop and take the time to realize what is really important," she said.

"Our Town" will be just the second Manatee Players show in the studio theater at the performing arts center. The seats will be configured differently than they were for the inaugural show, "Always… Patsy Cline," but it will still seat about 100 people.

The smaller space presented a few challenges for Artim, mostly because it doesn't allow for a lot of easy entrances and exits.

She solved the problem by having the whole cast -- 23 people -- on stage at all times. They react to the characters who are speaking and interact with each other, silently, during the times when their own characters would normally be offstage.

The character of the Stage Manager was almost always played by a man during the first 72 years of the play's existence. In 2010, Helen Hunt took the role in a critically acclaimed Broadway production.

Artim has cast Diana Shoemaker, who has most recently appeared on area stages in Island Players productions.

Both the actor and the director say casting a woman in the role makes a lot of sense.

"That role has a feminine feeling to it," Artim said. "It's so nurturing."

This is Artim's directorial debut with Manatee Players -- she works mostly at Venice Theatre -- but the cast includes several Manatee Players veterans, including Sabrina Bowen and Hunter Brown who play the central young couple George and Emily Gibbs.

Details: Oct. 30-Nov. 17, Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theatre at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26 general, $15 teachers, $13 students. Information: 941-748-5875, www.manateeplayers.com

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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