Chairman of the Bard

Thornton Wilder would have agreed, and when he wrote Our Town in 1938, he not only addressed mankind's dilemma but had the cojones to do it in a most creative fashion. Using a virtually bare stage where props must be imaginary, Wilder traced the simple lives of small-town folk to illustrate a complex problem -- that life is essentially wasted on the living. He also showed that during the years from 1901 to 1913, the typical American town -- in this case, a fictional spot in New Hampshire called Grover's Corners -- began to depart from simple pleasures and encounter hints of future nightmares. At the start, the biggest problem is the drunken choirmaster; by play's end, people talk about the growing need to lock their doors at night.

As I watched Our Town -- now opening the new season and reincarnation of the Shores Performing Arts Theater -- I could not forget Marowitz's observations. First of all, classics do need a greater introduction into these parts, if for no other reason than to inspire new local playwrights in the right direction. In spite of slight plot and slighter dramatic action, Wilder's is a work of genius, and few audience members leave the theater unaffected, because they're witnessing a true play, not a live sitcom or a dreary, self-indulgent experiment.

But if Marowitz brings the classics to Miami, he'd better be more careful than the Shores in his selection of actors and director. Some dramatic works can sustain lightweights on stage, but Our Town isn't one of them. Unless you involve artists of Jason Robards-quality, the fragile magic of the piece drowns and what surfaces may indeed evoke boredom.

Director Joe Adler stages the work nicely and sensitively in the traditional way but at the same time commits glaring errors. He combines Wilder's Act One and Two, ruining the timeline effect and making Act One so long I thought Thanksgiving dinner would be prepared by the time we broke for intermission. Wilder wisely divided the three acts at precise places; Adler doesn't exhibit half the sense.

Also, Adler allows actors to make unforgivable mistakes. Pamela Roza as the young, innocent Emily Webb performs tightly and honestly in Act One, but when she cries hysterically (and most unconvincingly) in the pivotal scene at the end of the work, she crowds the audience out. I couldn't feel the deep sorrow Wilder's memory piece is meant to evoke because I was too busy marveling at how Roza could hold a false-sounding tremor in her voice for so long.

Stephen S. Neal in the role of the omnipotent Stage Manager possesses the correct, endearing personality, but he overdoes it with a phony, endearing accent and a nasty habit of chuckling to himself, as though he's too far ahead of the joke. Wilder wrote in the Thirties of a town's decline, but Neal plays it as though the playwright foresaw crack and AIDS. Everyone in the cast seems to be reciting lines in a contrived, sentimental manner. Instead of providing realistic scenes, they give a consciously forced small-town charm. That said, however, Ralph de la Portilla as young George Gibbs and Marjorie O'Neill-Butler as his mother-in-law, Mrs. Webb, endow their roles with honesty and depth.

The Shores nonetheless deserves commendation for tackling this masterwork, and anyone who remembers Our Town only from high school English class should attend for the play itself. Believe me, this one ripens with age. The older you become, the more it means to you. And with giants like Charles Marowitz appearing in our town, you might someday witness such a classic given its proper due: as an inventive, professional production.

VARIATIONS ON MEASURE FOR MEASURE freely adapted by Charles Marowitz after William Shakespeare; with students and faculty from New World School of the Arts. At the Louise O. Gerrits Theater, 25 NE 2nd St, through November 22. Performances Thursday -- Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Tickets cost $5-$8. Call 237-3541.

OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder, directed by Joe Adler; with a cast featuring Stephen S. Neal, Marjorie O'Neill-Butler, Patricia McLaughlin, Roger Martin, Ralph de la Portilla, and Pamela Roza. At the Shores Performing Arts Theater, 9806 NE 2nd Ave, Miami Shores, through November 14. Performances 8:00 p.m. Friday -- Saturday; 2:00 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $15-$18. Call 751-0562.

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