WESTERLY — Hope Urbonas and Brandon Tallardy sat inside Mel's Downtown Creamery one afternoon last week, sharing an old-fashioned ice cream soda. As they sat across from one another in the red leather booth, sipping from their straws, the two young Westerly High School students, dressed in period costumes, had an aura of a bygone era. Intentionally.
Urbonas, a tenth-grader, and Tallardy, a ninth-grader, play the lead roles in the upcoming production of Thornton Wilder's 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Our Town," which opens Friday in Babcock Hall for a three-day run.
The play, which takes place in the mythical village of Grover’s Corners, N.H., opened on Broadway in 1938 to wide critical acclaim. "Our Town" tells the story of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, childhood friends whose relationship blossoms into romance and culminates in marriage. Emily famously reminisces about her life and all the little things she passed by.
Urbonas will play the role of Emily Webb and Tallardy will play George Gibbs.
"I've always been drawn to this character," said Urbonas one day during a rehearsal for the play, which is directed by John Peacock and Alana Rader. "I can relate to her. I see her so deeply invested in her family."
Urbonas said she's been working on understanding "how Emily might be feeling inside, since that shows on the outside."
"I really love George's character," put in Tallardy, who has acted in a number of local productions. "He's at first focused on sports more than people ... but then he and Emily fall in love."
"Brandon is very sincere," said Rader, "and he brings that to George."
Rader said they decided to produce the play "because it is such a universal piece of theater, focusing on the human condition and not taking life’s little moments for granted."
Our Town is thought by many to be one of the greatest American plays of all time, said Peacock, a recipient of a Barrymore Award for Excellence in Theatre who was a member of the ensemble in the Public Theater's Oskar Eustis-directed 2017 production of "Julius Caesar." "It's a story about life, death, and all of the tiny moments in between."
It remains popular, he said, because "The themes of life, love, and death are accessible to everyone, even ... perhaps especially ... the younger generations." And because "the wonderful ensemble-building nature of the play ... with minimal sets and props ... causes the audience to focus on the characters."
Other students participating in "Our Town" include Marissa Sherry and Abigail Casey who will share the role of Stage Manager; Owen Muller, who will play Editor Webb; Margaret Tetlow, who plays Mrs. Webb; Rosemarie Mirabella, who plays Doc Gibbs; Marissa Berardo, who plays Mrs. Gibbs; Rebecca Gibbs and Sam Craig, who will plays Penelope Nicolas; Tucker Moody, who plays three roles, Joe Crowell, Si Crowell and Mrs. Soames; Janna Califf, who plays Howie Newsome and Simon Stimson; Avery Moody, who'll play Wally Webb, Professor Willard and Constable Warren, and four crew members, Rader said.
"As you can see, we have condensed the cast quite a bit so the kids are being kept very busy," said Rader. "We think it's a great challenge for young actors to take on multiple roles."
This will be the first production by Rader and Peacock, New York City-based actors who became involved with Westerly High School last spring as part of the Colonial Theatre-Westerly Public Schools partnership, underwritten by the Rhode Island Foundation. During the summer they lead a program called "Midsummer Madness," the capstone production of a five-day summer camp program based on all things William Shakespeare.
"We're excited about this collaboration," said Attorney Nicholas C. Moore, vice president of the Colonial Theatre and a member of the theater's board of trustees. "We're excited to help bring an equity-level theater company back to the schools."
Moore, who earlier in the day announced the resignation of Colonial's Founding Artistic Director Harland D. Meltzer, said he and the board, in conjunction with School Superintendent Marc Garceau, are looking forward to "getting acting back into Westerly High School."
Moore praised Meltzer "for his 33 years of leadership" and for "establishing The Colonial and the Shakespeare Festival in Westerly’s Wilcox Park," which ran for more than 25 summers.
Moore said plans are also in the works to bring back a Shakespeare Festival in Wilcox Park for the summer of 2019.
For now, he said, it's time to help the theater take its next step. The first high school drama class to be part of Westerly’s main curriculum is scheduled to begin next spring, he said.
The spring play is slated to be a musical, Peacock added.
Garceau said that while details of the collaboration with the Colonial are still being worked out, everyone is "working hard to revive, and make better than ever, a vibrant, and active theater arts program."
Garceau said "re-establishing a strong theater arts program is a next logical step and one that brings great excitement" for a school system, whose sights are set "on becoming the premier comprehensive high school in the region," one that is "recognized for top flight academics and unmatched offerings in the visual and performing arts."
Peacock said Garceau is a champion of the arts, and had been instrumental in solidifying Westerly High’s relationship with The Colonial Theatre. Along with arts teachers John Tedeschi and Sarah Ferry, Garceau and others at the high school have been "so generous with their time and support in these early days of our partnership," he said.
"We all want this collaboration to succeed, and to see a thriving theater arts program at Westerly High School for years to come," Peacock added.
Rader said, "Jon and I are both excited about the direction the theater is going and are looking forward to future collaborations both on the educational and professional level."
Garceau said, "The theater is yet one more place where kids might find that thing that touches their heart, sparks their imagination and sets their course."