In The Last, Best Small Town that just opened at Theatricum Botanicum, my own experiences growing up are clarified with uncanny specificity. John Guerra’s elegant rendering of Thornton Wilder’s original “Our Town” reinforces the ubiquity of smalltown life, whether in Turn of the 20th Century New England, or in a dusty Central California town like Fillmore, where Guerra’s play is set.
Unlike Wilder’s stage manager, Guerra’s narrator transforms into a doppelgänger for the playwright (played by Leandro Cano), who introduces us to a pair of neighbors: Hank Miller (Christopher Wallinger) works for the town newspaper, while Benny Gonzales (Richard Azurdia) is a mechanic at his father’s car repair garage. Their side-by side experiences begin with the graduation of their respective sons. The event envelopes the town, beginning with a traditional school bus parade, and culminating with the Miller boy delivering a heartfelt valedictory commencement speech on his way to college in the East. Elliot Gonzales (Kelvin Morales), too, intends to go on to school, but events soon begin to unravel his plans. Because Elliot and Maya (Jordan Tyler Kessler), Marcus Miller’s sister, are in love, he sacrifices college to stay with her and goes to work at the garage. Eventually, Maya, too, leaves him for college, and Marcus leaves for the military as the financial downturn pushes the families farther and farther apart.
Guerra seamlessly interweaves our recent past into the narrative until we feel we’re watching our own stories come alive onstage. And director Ellen Geer has coaxed the ensemble into family relationships that feel as authentic as if they had been friends for life; no mean feat. As always, Theatricum’s technical staff embellishes the story using minimal set pieces with props by Emily Hucal, lighting by Zach Moore, and sound by Grant Escandon. Costuming by Beth Eslick contributes the sense of reality shown in the everyday lives spun out by the Miller and Gonzalez families. Guerra’s achievement in translating a one-hundred-year old play into a 21st century revelation is rare these days. And, to think: I have been one of the first to celebrate it!
The Last, Best, Small Town plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA 90290. Tickets and performance schedule at www.theatricum.com, or for tickets, phone 310-455-3723.