Arts & Culture

Giving Tree Theater forging new paths for 'Our Town'

RICHIE AKERS

Zoey Akers (left) guides the actors and audience as the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” opening Friday (12/28) at Giving Tree Theater in Marion. The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama continues through Jan. 13.
RICHIE AKERS Zoey Akers (left) guides the actors and audience as the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” opening Friday (12/28) at Giving Tree Theater in Marion. The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama continues through Jan. 13.

Richie Akers turned to his wife and called dibs the moment he saw a rebroadcast of the 2002 made-for-TV version of “Our Town,” starring Paul Newman.

“I hadn’t seen it staged before,” said Akers, 41, of Cedar Rapids. He had, however, read Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about everyday life in tiny Grover’s Corners, N.H., at the turn of the 20th century.

“I saw it, and immediately — it wasn’t even over — I told Heather, ‘Ohmigosh, we have to do this in our space, and I want to direct it.’ I was so excited.”

“Great Stories, Big Heart” is the motto and mission for the intimate 175-seat theater the couple founded in Uptown Marion in January 2015. This play fits that bill.

“It’s a total classic,” Akers said, adding that he’s surprised at how many people he’s encountered who know the title, but not the story.

“The best way to describe it is sort of like a time capsule,” he said. “It is a three-act show, but it’s not a long three-act show, which is great.”

The first act, set in 1901, takes the audience through a day in the life of the residents of the small New England town. The second act moves forward in time to the wedding day of high school sweethearts Emily Webb and George Gibbs, offering a look at young love in the early 1900s. And in the third act, audiences will see the residents dealing with death that strikes all ages in the close-knit community.

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“The part that appeals to me the most is how even though it’s set in those times, everything is as though it could be today,” he said. “We don’t have (today’s) technology in the show, but the story is the interaction, and it all applies to today’s life.

“Stylistically, there’s a few choices we’ve decided to make with costumes and scenery. We’re definitely not doing a period piece,” he said, but the actors aren’t changing any of Thornton Wilder’s words.

The play typically is staged without scenery, which lets the story shine through.

“I couldn’t be satisfied with just that,” Akers said. “We’re putting up a brick facade along the back wall. The stage essentially is bare. There are no doors, and as is mentioned in the script, props are mostly pantomimed, scenery is pantomimed. When they walk in or out of a room, you’re gonna see them open or close a door, but there’s no door there.

“The idea for the set is very much what you might find in a small-town Main Street now. We’ve got this distressed brick, and it’s not pristine. Instead of looking at it like it really is 1901, where these buildings probably were new or newer, I really want that sense of nostalgia.”

He’s tweaking the costumes, as well, to give the show a timeless feel, rather than anchoring it in the early 1900s.

“I described it to the cast as ‘a late ’90s Gap ad meets hipster chic,’” he said. He’s using a mix of “Great American classics,” like khakis, jeans, vests, ties, sneakers, and before they get married, the outfits for Emily and George are reminiscent of school uniforms.

He’s also using a smaller cast than you might see in school or community theater productions, where the idea is to populate the town with lots of people, in order to give more people time and experience onstage.

“You can have 25, 30 people in the show if you have the space and want to do that,” he said. “I was able to pare that down to 13. I wanted to give these great actors like Duane Larson and Amy Kaduce the opportunity to play multiple parts.”

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He’s also broken tradition by casting his daughter, Zoey, 14, as the narrator called Stage Manager, instead of casting the usual older male. Helen Hunt “made a bit of a splash,” Akers said, by playing the role off-Broadway in 2010.

When more than 20 younger females showed up to audition for the leading role of Emily, Akers asked them also to audition for Stage Manager. They jumped at the chance.

“What struck me more than anything,” he said, “is that wisdom can come in any size and at any age.”

While he’s sometimes fearful of criticism for casting his kids in shows, he said the most flack he gets is from his wife.

“Anyone who’s met Zoey knows she’s 50 years old in her head,” he said, but more than just her level of maturity, he said she brings a “freshness” to the role of the all-knowing person who keeps the story on track and offers insight about what the audience is seeing.

He also has looked for the laugh lines and lighter moments in the first and second acts, to offer some balance with the melancholy of the final scene, which drives home the importance of embracing life’s everyday moments.

“I hope (the audiences) walk out thinking they want to slow down,” Akers said. “I hope they walk out thinking they should put that phone away more often or they should enjoy their family time and make more time for it.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

GET OUT!

WHAT: “Our Town”

WHERE: Giving Tree Theater, 752 10th St., Marion

WHEN: Friday (12/28) to Jan. 13; 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

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TICKETS: $26, Giving Tree Box Office, (319) 213-7956 or Givingtreetheater.com/collections/shows/products/our-town

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