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Shakespeare veteran adds directorial flair to 'Our Town'

ACMA Theatre Company digs into nuances of Thornton Wilder classic


by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Arts & Communication Magnet Academy students rehearse for their fall production of 'Our Town' in the school's Performing Arts Center. For Claire Aldridge, a key message underlying “Our Town” is to always pay attention: Accept and enjoy life in all its contradictory, confounding, mundane and joyous glory.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, wake up!’” the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy senior says of Thornton Wilder’s classic play. “We have this life. It’s beautiful and painful and horrifying. It can also be extremely serene.”

Aldridge plays the role of stage manager/narrator in the ACMA Theatre Company’s production of “Our Town,” which premieres on Friday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. in the school’s Performing Arts Center. In a role typically played by a male, Aldridge admits it took some soul searching to evolve her initially emotional, sentimental approach to the more cerebral conscience of the play that director Demetra Pittman had in mind.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Demetra Pittman, a 23-year veteran of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is guest directing ACMA's performance of 'Our Town.'

“I was ready to come at it in a heartfelt way, but Demetra wanted someone more philosophical,” she says during a break in a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal. “Just in the past couple of weeks, I realized I’d tapped into who (the narrator) is, and it started clicking.”

A three-act production that American playwright Wilder introduced in 1938, “Our Town” tells the story of average townsfolk in fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H., focusing on their day-to-day lives in the early 20th century. The play, which explores themes of family, growing up, marriage, death and eternity, is performed on a skeletal set with actors miming actions sans elaborate props.

For Pittman, a 23-year veteran of the Shakespeare Festival Acting Company in Ashland who’s making her directorial debut at ACMA, the minimalism presents a golden opportunity for her and the actors to dig deep from within.

“Thornton Wilder conceived this play with a very spare set, very few props and very little scenery,” she says. “He felt they would be distractions to his theme of revealing the eternal in the everyday activities of life. And when you take away visual and tactile things in a show, it puts a lot of emphasis and responsibility on the actor to create the world of the play.

“Thornton Wilder is dealing with issues of what is eternal in the everyday activities of our lives,” she adds. “He illuminates the macro in the micro.”

The Sexton Mountain resident draws on her own “Our Town” experience, in which she played the part of Mrs. Julia Gibbs in a 2008 production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, to bring out the best in her young ACMA cast.by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Emma Younger plays Emily in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy presentation of 'Our Town.'

“I know what it feels like to be inside the play and have to pantomime cooking a meal and to imagine chickens in your yard,” Pittman says. “This play is quite demanding and rich for an actor. It’s a unique piece of theater in that way.”

Morgan Fay, who plays one of the double-cast roles of Mr. George Gibbs, enjoys the contrasts the play, and particularly his character, transitions through in relatively short order.

“It leaps from love to the death of a character,” the ACMA sophomore observes. “The most challenging thing is to capture what my character feels in the first 30 minutes. It’s such an emotional change.”

The 15-year-old, who’s performed in productions of “The Fantastiks” and “Great Expectations” at ACMA, relates what George goes through to his own experience in losing a beloved family member.

“I can relate to George on many levels,” he says. “He’s angry with God and asking, ‘Why does this happen?’ Then, nine months later, he’s finally at peace.”

Jack Walters, a junior who lives in the Aloha area, is Fay’s counterpart as George Gibbs. He admits it took time for the subtleties of Wilder’s creation to truly resonate with him.

“It felt like a dull show at first,” he says. “Then I started reading into it and saw what it was inferring, I was really drawn to it. I saw it was about community, life and love. I like how all those minor things go into making a production.”

Freshman Kelly Schenk, who plays George’s wife, Emily Webb, says the range of emotions Emily goes through provides ample opportunities to stretch her ability as a growing actress.

“Emily goes through so much,” she says. “I’ve never had a character so diverse and emotional in one show. It’s a huge challenge. You have to bring the audience along with you in the show. It’s a whole different side of acting.”

Pittman, she notes, brings a winning combination of energy and experience to the production.

“She’s extremely passionate and so experienced,” Schenk says. “It’s especially helpful because it feels like she really knows us as a cast. She’s ready to jump in, helping us with whatever we need. It’s really exciting to work with such a passionate director.”

Pittman credits her friend

Joel Morello, director of ACMA’s Performing Arts Center, with

enticing her away from her new retirement to work with ACMA students. She made a point of staying reasonably true to Wilder’s original vision with “Our Town,” which the students chose for their fall production.

“I’ve fiddled with the text some. And I do have a bit of a surprise ending,” she says. “But I’ve tried to keep my extrapolations to a minimum. I’ve tried to keep as true as I can to Thornton Wilder’s goal of ‘finding that value above all price for the smallest events in our lives.’”by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - George and Emily are played by alternates Morgan Fay and Kelly Schenk in ACMA's 'Our Town.'

Catch the show

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”

Who: The Arts & Communication Magnet Academy’s Theatre Company

Where: ACMA’s Performing Arts Center, 11375 S.W. Center St.

When: Nov. 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9 at 7 p.m.; matinees on Nov. 2 and

9 at 2 p.m.

Ticket prices: $15 adults; $8 students; $5 matinees

Buy tickets: Visit app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=acma

Facebook page: Facebook.com/acmatheatre

Call: 503-672-3700

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