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It takes a village in Our Town

The latest Claremont High School production tells you a lot about our town. It’s the kind of place where teachers, administrators and school board members—even the superintendent of schools—are willing to join teen actors on stage for a good cause.

The result, a moving production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play Our Town, will be performed Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, in CHS’ Fruechte Theatre.

Tickets are $20 and $50 for premium seating, with proceeds going to local programs benefiting students including Claremont After-School Programs (CLASP), ArtStart, Sustainable Claremont’s school garden efforts and the Claremont Faculty Association’s Epic Win program.

For those unfamiliar with the production, it’s a play-within-a-play, set at the turn of the 20th century. The main character is the Stage Manager, who serves as narrator as he immerses the audience in the everyday life of a fictional American small town called Grover’s Corners.

In a case of typecasting, the role is played by CHS social sciences teacher Tony Webner. Mr. Webner is gregarious, has a background in theater and serves as MC for events like the theater department’s annual FOOT Auction. 

CHS English teacher and speech and debate coach Dave Chamberlain not only plays the role of Dr. Gibbs. The production is his brainchild.

“Last winter, he approached me with the idea of performing Our Town and raising money for some organizations in town,” CHS Theater Director Krista Elhai said. “It was kind of funny. The first thing he said is, ‘Now don’t say no. Just listen to what I have to tell you.’”

The play selection was appropriate, given CHS sophomores were assigned to read the play last year. Ms. Elhai thought Mr. Chamberlain’s idea was great, it was just a matter of finding time for the effort.

“It’s very challenging, squeezing in all of these adult schedules,” she said.

Dave Nemer, a school board member who plays the role of town undertaker Joe Stoddard, agreed. Still, he says taking part in the production has been eye-opening.

“It’s been partly terrifying for any of us who have never done this before,” he said. “It’s kind of a late age to be starting a career, even a hobby, as an actor. But it’s been fascinating to see how the Claremont High School Theater Department actually brings a production from nothing to what they ultimately do on stage.”

As Our Town dress rehearsals approach, Ms. Elhai is also in the thick of directing a benefit, to be held in Los Angeles, for a national theater organization. The day after the benefit, the CHS Theatre Department will hold its annual FOOT Auction, with students performing selections from the musical Newsies.

The auction will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, November 15 and 15, at the Candlelight Pavilion. Tickets for the show, which starts at 7 p.m. each night, are $7 presale and $8 at the door. Coffee and dessert will be served.

First, though, comes Our Town, a production that’s a completely new experience for CHS Principal Brett O’Connor. The administrator has a small but significant role as Sam Craig, a former Grover’s Corners resident who returns to attend a cousin’s funeral.

“It’s uncomfortable, because I’m really the student and the students are the teachers,” he said. “That’s a different role than we normally have here on campus, but it’s a good one. I want my students to be lifelong learners, and this is an example of me having to be a lifelong learner.”

He’s learned there’s a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a show, from costume design to orchestrating audio and lighting to construction.

“We even had an articulation coach come in and work with us,” he marveled. “We learned to speak a little more like they speak on the east coast, like ‘Fahma McCahty’ instead of Farmer McCarty.”

CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser will also showcase his thespian skills in a bit part as one of the people at the cemetery. Other small parts are played by school board members Beth Bingham, Hillary La Conte and Steven Llanusa. Faculty members making their CHS Theater debut include El Roble English teacher Jenny McGourty Riggs as Mrs. Gibbs, CHS English teacher Allison Evans as Mrs. Webb, CHS English teacher Maria Zavala as Mrs. Soames and CHS science teacher Ryan Pettibone as Simon Stimpson.

Actor and comedian W.C. Fields famously declared that his policy was to “never work with animals or children,” because, through sheer cuteness, they upstage even the most seasoned actor.

This opinion is borne out in Our Town, as many of the student actors—most notably Carly Sanden and Riley Polanski as Emily Webb and George Gibbs—steal the show. Over the course of the production, the pair goes from high school sweethearts to nervous bride and groom to bereaved spouses.

It’s an effective and affecting performance that underscores the theme of the play. Life, with its beauty and affections as well as its travails, is short. We may as well take time to enjoy it, and to really look at one another.

If you’re ready to look at district luminaries and staffers acting side-by-side with high school thespians, you buy Our Town tickets at the door. Presale, though, is strongly recommended. For more information, visit chstheatre.cusd.claremont.edu or call the Claremont High School Theatre at (909) 624-9053 ext. 30463.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com