‘(y)Our Town’ at WIT has all the funny and all the feels

In its twist on Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town,' Washington Improv Theater not only cracks jokes but cracks open the emotion in the moment.

With its quick-thinking casts creating laugh-out-loud sketch comedy on the fly, Washington Improv Theater has consistently tickled me. Last night, WIT touched me too.

The company opened a new show at Source Theatre called (y)Our Town, loosely inspired by Thornton Wilder’s venerable Our Town. More than an homage, (y)Our Town introduces us to an original approach to long-form narrative improv — one that blends humor and heart, antic artistry and all the feels.

(Clockwise from top left:) Samiyyah Ali (Stage Manager) and cast; Jordana Mishory and Kevin Eggleston; Clyde Thompson and Melissa Gedney; Renan Snowden, Mercedes Hesselroth, and Jared Smith — photographed in performance in ‘(y)Our Town’ March 11, 2022, by Jeff Salmore.

For the audience, the setup begins in the lobby, where we are asked to jot a message to the future on a card (“Dear Future,” it’s preprinted). And then once we’re all seated, a Stage Manager (an affectingly affable Samiyyah Ali) asks for three of us to offer the name of “an object that sums up life” for “a time capsule dedicated to the future.”

From those jottings and those three random items, a team of actors goes on to enact a day in a small town. They do so through an interwoven sequence of utterly charming and engaging improvisations about family relations, romances, and civic life that, all improv being ephemeral, will never be seen or heard again.

There are resonant references to Our Town. The Stage Manager sets the scene with old wooden chairs, stools, and a ladder, points out places in the town (“Over there is… Over there is…), and introduces us to the townsfolk, the characters the actors will be playing. The program quotes Wilder on eternity (“…There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being”). And throughout, the “Dear Future” leitmotif finds expression in tender moments of connection and intimations of mortality.

At times, the improv happens using a riveting split-scene technique, which I’ve not seen before. Two or three actors would begin a mini-narrative on one side of the stage; then focus would cut to two or three other actors beginning another on the other. This would go on back and forth, as if on imperceptible cue. The (y)Our Town co-directors, Bill Nelson and Matt Strode, appear to have prepped the cast with a brilliant underlying dramaturgical framework in which they can spontaneously and intuitively play. And the presumptive metaplot of the show — which keeps circling back to those three audience-picked-for-posterity objects — unspools with uncanny suspense. “What’s going to happen next?” and “How’d they do that?” are questions that may well come to mind.

(Clockwise from left:) Jared Smith, Mercedes Hesselroth, Carlic Huynh, and Renan Snowden; Kenny Hahn; Jason Re — photographed in performance in ‘(y)Our Town’ March 11, 2022, by Jeff Salmore.

What distinguishes the improv in (y)Our Town is that it aims not only to crack jokes but to crack open the emotion in the moment. And that’s thanks to the cast. They are a fascinating ensemble of talents — Cerra Cardwell, Robin Doody, Kevin Eggleston, Patrick Fleury, Melissa Gedney, Kenny Hahn, Mercedes Hesselroth, Carlic Huynh, ]ordana Mishory, Jason Re, ]ared Smith, Renan Snowden, and Clyde Thompson — and their cohesion in performance is in its own way a stirring memento of our shared humanity.

At the end, in what I took to be a preplanned wrapup, an actor stepped forward for each of the three plot-point props and began, in character, an emotional reminiscence of the object: “I remember… I remember…” Something really sunk in for me then. I felt in the performance of each such mini monologue exactly such transparent and authentic feeling as might suit a great scripted drama. One by Thornton Wilder, for instance. Except the gifted actors at WIT made it up before our eyes.

Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes, with no intermission.

(y)Our Town plays through March 20, 2022, presented by Washington Improv Theater performing at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Purchase ($15 with discounts available) online and at the door.

COVID Safety: Audience members must provide documentation of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including a booster shot, and must wear a medical-grade mask (surgical mask or better) over their nose and mouth and keep it on at all times while in the theater. Washington Improv Theater’s full COVID-19 safety policy can be found here.

RELATED:
WIT to require booster shots and medical-grade masks (news story)

 

The cast and directors of ‘y(Our) Town.’
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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

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