ELLSWORTH — When Nick Turner arrived as the new executive director of The Grand in March, it marked a big change for him and his family.
They were coming from the other side of the country (Colorado) and much larger communities (living in Loveland and working in neighboring Fort Collins, with a combined population north of 300,000).
“We wanted to be part of the community as much as we could,” said Turner, referring to Ellsworth (population 7,900).
As he got to work at The Grand, one of the questions he was faced with was what the theater should do for its fall production. “The Little Mermaid” had been scheduled, but Turner was concerned about production costs — and also felt that something else might be more appropriate as he settled into his new community.
“The more I met people, the more ‘Our Town’ jumped out at me,” he said.
Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 play about life, love and loss in small-town America will take to the stage at The Grand for on Friday, Oct. 20, through Sunday, Oct. 22, and Friday, Oct. 27, through Sunday, Oct. 29.
The “Our Town” cast will feature familiar faces — business owners, educators, other professionals and students — from Ellsworth and surrounding towns. Some of them are veterans of the theater, others have not acted for decades, and a couple of them are making their stage debuts.
“I really wanted to embrace the community so people would see people in the community when they come to see the show,” said Turner, who is directing the performance. “And it was an opportunity for me to meet 25 or more people in a play format.”
“Our Town” is set in fictional Grovers Corner, N.H., in the early 20th century and looks at the everyday lives of its inhabitants. At the center of the story are George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whom the audience first meets as two young people in Act I. They later get married in Act II and then must face the finite nature of life in Act III.
Guiding those in the audience throughout the show is the stage manager, played in this production by Jim Pendergist. A local businessman by day, Jim is a veteran of the stage. He described his role as somewhat “mysterious” — he interacts with and sometimes directs cast members, but also talks directly to the audience — and one that has made him work hard.
“It is unquestionably the most difficult role I’ve ever had,” he said, not only with the number of lines he has but the nuance with which they must be delivered.
Four cast members come from the same family: husband and wife Josh and Jennifer Torrance and their children, Sophie and Noah. Josh directs the Woodlawn Museum while Jennifer manages The Jackson Laboratory’s in-house creative agency, JAX Creative, and directs the Acadia School of Traditional Music and Arts. He runs, and she sings.
It is the first time Sophie and Noah have acted on The Grand stage, but for their parents, this production represents coming full circle: Josh and Jennifer met in 2003 at The Grand while they were both acting in “My Fair Lady.”
“The Grand is where we got together,” said Josh. “It’s kind of surreal to be back up there now with our kids.”
The Torrances are husband and wife in “Our Town” as well as real life: Jennifer is Myrtle Webb and Joshua is newspaper editor Charles Webb. Jennifer said she sees a lot of herself in her character, and that she has learned from the role, as well.
“She reminds me that we really do go through life without really experiencing it,” she said. “It really resonates very deeply with me.”
Brady Kelley, a homeschooler from Steuben, plays one of the central roles in “Our Town” as George Gibbs. Brady said his character goes from being humble to acting cocky and more like a “big shot,” but that it is his relationship with Emily Webb that helps straighten him out.
“It ends up being a pretty good love story in my opinion,” said Brady.
Two cast members are acting for the first time. Roman Perez is youth development director for the Down East Family YMCA, but in “Our Town,” he is milkman Howie Newsome. Like many in the play, he traces his involvement back to Turner.
“He asked if I would volunteer and be part of the cast, and I agreed with no hesitation,” said Roman.
Roman said he is excited to be working with a mix of community members, many of them like himself, having never acted before, or not in many years.
“I just love how Nick Turner wants to bring in just regular people from the community,” he said. “It’s very exciting. I’m totally stoked.”
Ben Speed, multimedia technologies instructor at the Hancock County Technical Center, studied performing arts in college, worked in a scene shop there and served as stage manager for a production. This is his first time on The Grand’s stage, and he plays Constable Bill Warren.
“He is like the police officer in town,” Ben explained. “He is kind of responsible for checking on things, especially in the morning and late at night — making sure doors are locked and that everybody is safe.”
Turner said one of the biggest challenges in staging “Our Town” (which has simple, sparse sets to underscore the point that it could really be any town) is overcoming the “perception that it’s a sad play.”
The subject of death is dealt with directly, for example, and that has sometimes led to the view that Turner referenced. In 1946, the former Soviet Union reportedly blocked a production of “Our Town” in East Berlin “on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave.”
Turner sees things differently.
“Are there sad moments in it?” he said. “Yes. But our message is life, and that life is uplifting. In spite of the tragedies and the sadness, at the end of the day, life is well worth living.”
There will be 7 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20-21, and Friday-Saturday, Oct. 27-28, and 2 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday each weekend. Tickets cost $20 for adults and seniors, $18 for Grand members and military personnel, and $10 for students 17 and under. Call 667-9500 or visit www.grandonline.org.