MJC, Gallo Center join to produce Thornton Wilder’s classic 'Our Town'

03/06/2014 12:00 AM

03/07/2014 11:22 AM

Seems only fitting that the first full production between Modesto Junior College and the Gallo Center for the Arts should be “Our Town.”

The community event showcases Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 drama about the town of Grover’s Corner. Gallo Arts Education Coordinator Jim Johnson said the center has been looking for ways to engage arts groups from across the town and the region.

“I think it’s part of the mission of the Gallo Center to be involved directly in the community,” he said. “We’ve done several musical events and reached out to the community: Prospect Theater, Stanislaus State and MJC have all joined forces to present things.”

Last season, MJC and Gallo held their first joint production, a short children’s play. But “Our Town” will be the groups’ first major collaboration. MJC theater professor Michael Lynch, the play’s director, said doing a show at the downtown Gallo Center opens up new opportunities for students.

“The Gallo is the central arts center in the community,” he said. “The theater space would give my students a chance to work in a whole new venue. It gives them exposure to other audience members who wouldn’t normally come on campus.”

Johnson approached MJC officials about joining forces and had selected “Our Town” because of its timeless appeal.

“ ‘Our Town’ is an iconic, classic play that I’ve always wanted to do,” said Johnson, who plays the show’s narrator, Stage Manager, in the production. “The play is simple to put on, relatively little sets, yet it’s a very complex play. It is about the ordinary lives of people anywhere.”

The story of a fictional small town in America and its inhabitants spans more than a decade. The Pulitzer Prize-winning piece, which focuses mainly on the town’s Gibbs and Webb families, often is put on by high school drama departments because of its minimal sets, scenery and props. The Gallo/MJC show also will have no sets, but will utilize sophisticated lighting and other devices to give it a distinctive look.

The production includes 22 actors, including a mix of community members and students. Johnson, who spent 40 years at the MJC theater department before retiring six years ago, said they wanted age-appropriate actors for some of the roles.

MJC student actors, who make up most of the cast, including Bev Barney as Mrs. Gibbs, Mike Hewitt as Doc Gibbs, Robin Bjerke as Mrs. Webb, Dean Medek as Mr. Webb and Stefani Potter and Alexandre Goncalves as the two young lovers who marry and experience the cycle of life.

Lynch said despite the play’s ubiquity, this show should have a little more bite to it than the often idealized takes on Grover’s Corners.

“I wanted to do a different, sharper take on it,” Lynch said. “It’s not just the homespun play we all think about. Especially at the end, it’s very tragic. I’m going at it in that direction as something more edgy than the Norman Rockwell painting of small-town life.”

Even though it was written in the 1930s, the three-act play still resonates today, Johnson said. It touches on issues of social consciousness such as marriage, war and death and how they can affect a community.

Johnson said he hopes the production will be the first of many collaborations the center has with MJC and other arts groups.

“I want it to open the eyes to other artists groups in this area that the Gallo Center is a welcoming place,” he said. “We want to be doing this for a long time in the future with other groups.”

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