The moment during Saturday night’s opening of Miami New Drama’s rendition of Our Town, the quintessentially American Thornton Wilder play, that felt most familiar was the one you might have expected to be the most “foreign.” Mrs. Gibbs (the charismatic and marvelously vital Chantal Jean-Pierre) and Mrs. Webb (the formidable Carlotta Sosa), stood side by side on stage at the Colony Theatre, making breakfast, yelling to their children, hurry, you’ll be late for school. But instead of New England English, Jean-Pierre speaks in Creole, and Sosa in Spanish. And just like that, this quintessential domestic scene opens up to embrace thousands of families across Miami, to become – startlingly, naturally – newly universal. Instead of a window into a nostalgic past, the moment feels like Miami now.
This, of course, is what director Michel Hausmann, (who is also MiND’s artistic director) hoped to accomplish by having Miami-raised playwrights Nilo Cruz and Jeff Augustin translate some of the intimate family scenes in Our Town, making the Gibbs Haitian-American, and the Webbs Latino. But there are many other ways in which Hausmann’s version of the Pulitzer Prize winning drama injects new life into a play whose image remains a vaguely Norman Rockwell-ish sepia. (The show runs through Nov. 19th at the Colony on Miami Beach, where MiND is now the resident company.)
As the audience drifts in, the cast gathers to sing what you gradually realize are not early 20th century hymns, but the familiar likes of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World. Arnulfo Maldonado’s stark, striking set covers the Colony stage in clean-lined pine boards (so fresh you can smell them) to project a platform into the seats, a striking physical way of extending the play’s message that the life we see onstage is our own.
The show is lively, welcoming, even playful, without a hint of reverence. Despite the bowler hats and aproned gowns (Maldonado also designed the beautifully detailed costumes), the characters seem contemporary. The warm tone is set by the towering Keith Randolph Smith (a veteran of multiple August Wilson plays in New York) as the Stage Manager. With his rumbling bass voice and powerful presence, he’s a commanding but reassuring patriarch, with a knowing edge – part sadness, part acceptance.
That this multi-racial/cultural cast is led by an African-American actor also brings the play into the present. George Gibbs (Martin K. Lewis) and Emily Webb’s (Thallis Santesteban) romance is bi-cultural and bi-racial. Moments like the one when Jean-Pierre says, with her Creole accent, that she’d like to go to a country “where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to,” have a different resonance than if she were speaking in a folksy New Hampshire twang. When an actor in the audience, interrogating Mr. Webb (Luigi Sciamanna) on why the folks in Grovers Corners don’t do more than talk about the issues that bother them, Smith and Sciamanna exchange a skeptical glance that instantly echoes with our own Facebook driven political cacophony.
Throughout, Hausmann finds that kind of surprising nuance, and often humor, in the text and performances. Santesteban, poignant and passionate as Emily, slips fluidly between English and Spanish. (Although Santesteban stays at such an intense pitch that we’re a bit worn out by the time she gets to the heartbreak of the final act.) The dynamic Lewis makes George appealingly eager and earnest – and just a bit dense. Jeni Hacker is deftly hilarious in the dual roles of the droning Professor Willard and the gossipy, sentimental Mrs. Soames. But everyone in this accomplished cast gives rich performances, full of verve.
Inviting the audience onstage to dance with the cast after George and Emily’s wedding could have been an immersive theater gimmick. But dancing to La Bamba, the actors singing in your ear, getting silly with happy strangers just like you’d do at any wedding party, makes the celebration feel real in a different way than it would if we were simply watching. So that when the party tapers off with the actors singing Marc Anthony’s triumphant hit Vivir Mi Vida – the segue into Emily’s funeral hits us with a shock it would not have had otherwise. But then, of course, in this version of Our Town, we should feel like we’re losing one of our own.
Our Town plays Thursday to Sunday through Nov. 19th at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets $45 to $65 at colonymb.org/ourtown.