Our Town
ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave SW, 938-0339. Thurs-Sat at 8 (also Sat at 3); $20. Through Oct 21.

THORNTON WILDER'S Our Town has a reputation for being a drippy, sentimental portrait of small-town American life--and for the first act, it is: An omniscient Stage Manager paints a picture of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, cast in a golden, nostalgic light. But Wilder-- heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht's theories of the anti-realistic Epic Theatre--presents this Norman Rockwell portrait with a variety of minimalist theatrical devices (for example, the Stage Manager asks a professor to describe the geological history of the town's countryside, and chairs represent graves). It soon becomes clear that sentimentality is also a convention, a means to convince us that we know who these people are--lulling us into assumptions that will be subtly and effectively disturbed later.

ArtsWest's production of this lyric play at first seems almost too quiet, too restrained--the everyday doings of the town's residents (particularly the families of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, played by Jessica Chisum and Ron Rittinger) are so low-key that I feared we were being treated to some reverent, "classical" interpretation. But over the course of the play, these restrained performances allow a richness of feeling to stir slowly. Our Town doesn't build to a fury, but breathes into a sorrow. By the third act, which presents a vision of the afterlife almost cruel in its gentleness, an ache of loss and grief cuts through any lingering sentiment, and the play's emotions become as stark as its staging.

Chisum and Rittinger are excellent, as are their parents (Richard Hesik, Beth Andrisevic, Chris Comte, and Ilana Long). Director Melanie White makes good use of live sound effects and has a clear grasp of Wilder's devices and intentions. Not everything about this 1938 play has aged well--some of the naiveté, deliberate or not, is a bit much to take--but this remarkable mix of theatrical experimentation and transcendental philosophy remains unique; this worthy production lets its virtues shine through.