East Hill actors embrace Our Town

Director has been part of more than 200 performances of the Wilder classic
by: Marcus Hathcock, Director Dennis Fitzpatrick gives the East Hill "Our Town" cast some words of wisdom before beginning the first act during a rehearsal Thursday evening. "He embodies the spirit of 'Our Town,'" says Artistic Director Jeff Schroeder.

At first glance, Thornton Wilder's play, 'Our Town,' doesn't seem to have a lot in common with present-day Oregon.

It's set in Grover's Corners, N.H. - a world away, physically and ideologically speaking - following the lives of two nuclear families at the dawn of the 20th century.

But Dennis Fitzpatrick says that given a closer look, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has themes and lessons that speak to all humanity - anytime, anywhere.

'Somehow Mr. Wilder has cut to the core of things,' says Fitzpatrick, 60. 'He details the pieces of life that we all go through.'

Fitzpatrick knows what he's talking about. He's been a part of over 200 productions of 'Our Town' throughout his life, a theatrical journey that has spanned the globe and the decades. Several of the shows have been in the United Kingdom.

His fifth directorial effort and latest involvement with 'Our Town' is at East Hill Church in Gresham. Since late May he has worked with actors from the church as part of its inaugural summer theater program, which starts at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, July 20, and runs Friday, July 21 and Sunday, July 23 at the East Hill Main Auditorium, 701 N. Main Street, Gresham. Admission is $5.

Yes, the show is at a church, but Jeff Schroeder, the East Hill Performing Arts Department's Artistic Director, says don't jump to conclusions too fast.

No offering is taken, there's no worship team and none of the church's pastors even makes an appearance, except for maybe joining the audience.

Instead of evangelizing, the play's the thing, says Schroeder, 25.

Although written nearly 70 years ago, Schroeder says Wilder's overarching, provoking themes of simplicity and slowing the pace of life are made ever-relevant in today's fast-paced culture. It features minimal use of props and scenery, and the costumes aren't flashy, so the audience can concentrate on the interpersonal action.

'We're doing this because it's an important play for an important time,' he said. 'It needs to be heard. (Wilder) invites us to think about life, love and where we're going when we die.'

Cast member Jason Ogan, who plays the role of choir director Simon Stimpson, says when he delves into 'Our Town,' he sees his hometown.

'The more I get to know this great play, the more I'm realizing it's Gresham,' said the 30-year-old Centennial High School graduate. 'It has that country-meets-city kind of a feel, exactly what Gresham and East County are going through.'

What has made this production stand out for Fitzpatrick, he says, is the bonding shared by the cast.

'The sense of community was there before we began the production, from the first read-through,' Fitzpatrick said. 'They all knew each other and had a warmth of recognition. They created 'Our Town.' '

Don Geyer, a technical writer from Sandy who plays the part of newspaper editor Charles Webb, agrees.

'At church we have a little bit of an edge,' said Geyer, 43. 'There's some commonality between us already - we're not just strangers. Our common beliefs play into what this whole play is about, too - to get people to approach life not like society does these days.'

The cast prays together regularly before rehearsals, which Ogan says is the only real semblance of 'church' in the production. They also get together on a regular basis, Schroeder says, whether it's hanging out, at rehearsals, going to see shows or acting workshops.

Cast members agree that Fitzpatrick has become an integral part of the close-knit theatrical family in the last month-and-a-half.

'Dennis knows exactly what he wants out of each of us and coaxes it out of us,' Geyer said. 'The message of taking time to enjoy life, to savor every moment, that's him - that's how he lives.'

Ogan, 30, is the most experienced member of the cast. The Centennial High School graduate was the choir director for Mt. Hood Community College for two years before he traveled the country singing opera professionally.

He says the 'Our Town' cast is talented, but even more important, the show's creative team - Fitzpatrick and Schroeder - have brought the talent out of the cast.

'I just hope they catch that theater bug and find other opportunities,' he said of his castmates.

'Our Town' is the first of what may be a long line of summer theater productions at the church, Schroeder said. 'The East County area is in need of more theater experiences. We hope for this to be the first of many summer productions at East Hill.'

In the meantime, 'If you've never seen it, come be a part of 'Our Town,' ' urged Fitzpatrick. And for those who think they know the play: 'Like a good book, you'll find something more each time. Everyone should see this at different points in their life.'