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Attending a wedding and a funeral in Philadelphia's Old City:
An innovative production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town at the Arden Theatre
 
by Henrik Eger
 
Yesterday afternoon, I welcomed theatreogers to the crowded Arden Theatre, handing out programs and informing them that they were about to see a three hour performance, that we would go to Christ Church for a wedding, and that the President of Villanova University was going to be one of our guests today.  And suddenly, Father Donahue, President of Villanova, stood in front of me, ticket in hand, and said, "Yes, he's going to be here tonight."  We both laughed and shortly thereafter, a cast of 29 actors peopled the stage, with two choirs sitting on two adjoining balconies.  
 
Actor, director, and playwright Eric Hissom acted as the Stage Manager, and guided all of us through the entire program, which included asking the audience for questions, which were posed by Father Donahue; Pat Vernon, member of the Arden Sylvan Society; and Jane Pepper, author and President of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who also acted as a plant.  The two young lovers of Our Town, George (Peterson Townsend) and Emily (Rebecca Blumhagen) enchanted the audience, both at the Arden and at Christ Church, where we all attended the wedding and sang "How Great Thou Art," led by an alcoholic conductor, played subtly and convincingly by Frederick Andersen.  If there were a Barrymore Award for hand-and-eye coordination, it would definitely have to go to the person who pushed the sound button every time the actors performed with non-existing props, for example, catching a baseball or mowing the lawn.  And if there were another Barrymore Award for best timing, it would have to go to the actors who opened the windows at Christ Church from the outside, and interrupted the program with good, neighborly humor.
 
I was rather touched not only by the outstanding performance of the cast, especially Greg Wood as the bride's father Mr. Webb, but by his program bio, in which Wood let go of all his many achievements, and instead thanked "the audience of Philadelphia for your ever constant and always generous support of the Arden and for the arts and artists in our town."  I was equally moved and touched by the way that Arden Artistic Director Terry Nolen's program notes reflected Wilder's sentiment: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning," as Nolen dedicated the play to those "people of our community who no longer are with us," and to the many children of the actors who have performed at the Arden during the past 20 years.  
 
Wilder's play is probably the most frequently produced of any American playwright.  Perhaps because it shows life in a world in which everything seems to still work, and where we witness the cycle of life from birth to death, and where Wilder treats us to a wedding, a funeral,  and even allows us to listen to the voices of the dead.  Throughout the play, Wilder presents a wide range of philosophies, from humor, for example when a young girl complains that she is "dressed like a sick turkey," to statements like the famous "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it?  Every, every minute?" 
 
After a very sobering, yet life-affirming ending, a kind of dramatic Chicken Soup for the Soul, the audience left deep in thought or animated in their discussions with friends.  I stayed behind for a few moments and then met Greg Wood, one of Philadelphia's best actors, and shared with him how bittersweet it was to see one of our most senior Philadelphian actors, Harry Philobosian, still up on stage even though he is now stooped over and walking slowly with a cane, almost like a Philadelphia King Lear.  I also talked with Wood's stage wife, Joanna Rhinehart, of how my heart was with this multi-racial production but that the historian in me was troubled by the inaccuracy because life in the US, even in New Hampshire of the first two decades of the 20th century, was anything but welcoming to African-Americans and interracial marriages.  However, as someone who values equality and color-blind casting, I appreciated the attempt of creating a town that in some ways, represents modern-day Philadelphia.  This was truly our town. 
 
As most performances are heavily booked, I strongly urge everyone to get tickets as soon as possible and if you can't, then offer to usher.  Who knows, you might meet some very famous "townspeople" who are guests at the Arden, including playwright Michael Hollinger, Governor Ed Rendell, and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Gabrielle Cipollone from Germany, now a rowing coach at Bryn Mawr College.