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The City Journals

Hunter High’s ‘Our Town’ simplified scenes, but expanded themes

Mar 06, 2019 02:18PM ● By Travis Barton

Pablo Castro (right) speaks with Zerin Gilmore during a production of “Our Town.” (Photo/Chuck Smith)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

After the “behemoth” production of “Tarzan” last fall, Hunter High Drama Teacher Kjersti Parkes wanted something simple. 

“Tarzan” featured aerials, a trampoline, actors running off stage, things breaking. For the drama team’s next play, it had no curtains, no scenery. From a set design perspective, the shows couldn’t be any different. 

Parkes and her team performed “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning drama about a fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire beginning in 1901. The stage had actors in costume, twinkle lights hanging above them and a few chairs. Props were pantomimed by the actors and left to the imagination of the audience. 

Quite the difference from “Tarzan.” 

“It wasn't about the spectacle,” said Erick Ramos, who played the Stage Manager, a de facto narrator who accompanies the audience throughout the play. “It was about the words, this playwright, and this beautiful town of Grover's Corners. That was awesome to do.” 

With almost no props, Ramos said the audience could focus on Wilder’s words and his story. 

“It’s not me that’s the star, not the two leads,” he said. “The story was the star.” 

The play was a different kind of challenge, Parkes said, and a good fit for the students. 

“I feel like this is show is one that is either really boring or really beautiful,” she said. “So I wanted the challenge. I felt the kids were a good group to do this with because it can become very dry.” 

As Stage Manager, Ramos takes the audience through three acts over a 12-year span: 1901, 1904 and 1913. The audience witnesses how time changes the characters’ perspectives. Some go from a happy introduction in their teenage years to their eventual deaths, reminding one character, after her death, to appreciate life while living it.  

With such heavy themes, Parkes said a primary focus was connecting kids to the material. The play was written in the early 1900s about a time they are not familiar with. 

“But more than that, it's about connecting with the emotion,” she said. “The humanity of it I think is challenging because high school students haven’t undergone a ton of life experiences yet.” 

Parkes said she wanted the show as authentic as possible, as much for the audience as for the actors. That meant taking one of their first rehearsals to simply talk about the themes of the show, such as what it means to live in the moment and making the most of the time they have. 

Judging from Ramos’ assessment, students made the connection. 

“It's about sometimes stopping and realizing the small things in life,” Ramos said about the play’s message shortly after the opening night performance. “While you're doing them they're going to mean nothing to you. Once you look back at them, they're going to mean everything to you. And I think that's the beautiful part of it.”

Though the story takes place in fictionalized Grover’s Corners, it’s meant to represent all towns, ergo the minimalist set. 

Ramos said Wilder wrote the story as if he took a handful of towns at the turn of the century, threw them in a hat and took one out. He then placed a magnifying glass over the town, focusing on the everyday lives of the milkman, teacher or town doctor. 

“(Wilder) made something extraordinary out of ordinary,” Ramos said. 

Parkes, who doesn’t watch the actual performances so she can “let it be,” said her favorite parts are the twinkle lights and Act 3. 

“The other stuff is great but Act 3 is the heart of it,” she said. “I think the girl who played Emily (Emily Johnson), I thought she did such a good job and it was just fun to see her grow in that part.”

Up next for the Hunter High theatre department are student directed one-act plays at the end of April—one about Harry Houdini that features actual magic tricks and another about gossip and mistaken identity. Students will then close out the year with regional and state competition. 

Ramos started doing theater in junior high and said Hunter High has “an awesome theater program.”

“I think that's something a lot of people don’t know,” he said. “But once you come here, see that the kids and teachers put a lot of effort, thought, and passion into what they do.”