Kayla Hairston sits quietly off to herself, doing homework as fellow cast members of the Columbus Community Theatre’s “Our Town” run scenes at the Rosenzweig Arts Center. The 14-year-old uses some of her breaks to get schoolwork done; it’s one way she juggles academics and her thirst for theater.
Kayla portrays Emily Webb, a central character in the upcoming production March 5-8 in the arts center’s Omnova Theater. The Columbus Middle School student is one of several young thespians making their community theater debut.
“I’m really involved with plays at Columbus Middle school,” said Kayla. “But when my drama teacher Chelsea Petty told us about this, I wanted to audition.” As did other students, resulting in a cast that brings some fresh faces to CCT.
On Petty’s part, acting alongside some of her current and former students is a nice change. She’s usually in front of the stage, telling them what to do. “Now I’m up there with them, and we’re all getting told what to do,” she laughed.
The cast is reflective of the diverse Columbus community.
“We have a wonderful mix of several middle and high school students, along with more ‘veteran’ actors, and the camaraderie among them has been heartwarming to see,” said Beverly Norris of the community theater group.
Small town America
The “Our Town” actors are in final stages of rehearsal for Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in the early 1900s. First produced in 1938, the drama of life in the small, fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, has become an American classic. For cast member Melanie Hintz, who fills the pivotal role of Stage Manager — or narrator, it is a timeless piece of work.
“In this play, we’re not in Grover’s Corners, we’re in Columbus, Mississippi, or any town it’s presented in … it’s everyday life, it’s relationships that everyone can relate to,” she said.
Hintz’s character acts as a guide, a commentator who directly addresses the audience. Her role breaks theater’s “fourth wall of separation,” the illusionary boundary between actors and audience.
The production’s minimalist style sets it apart as well. Sparse stage sets suggest Wilder’s intention to make Grover’s Corners represent all towns, where milkmen delivered milk, moms sent kids off to school, people married, people passed away.
“The audience can really focus on the acting, on the words,” said director Melissa Duncan, who graduated from the University of Alabama in 2011 and moved back home to Columbus. She has since been involved in CCT and Tennessee Williams Tribute productions. “This is a different experience. You are really able to kind of participate in the play.”
While Wilder’s “Our Town” is a couple of centuries and a geographical world removed from his 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” the works are often linked and compared.
“The Bridge” is the focus of The Big Read, Columbus’ first National Endowment of the Arts community-wide reading initiative. It has been underway since mid-January. Two months of related programming by the Columbus Arts Council, the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, Mississippi University for Women’s Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy, and Friends of the Library have surrounded The Big Read, which is administered by Arts Midwest.
“There is a wonderful connection in the two stories,” said Norris. “Wilder takes some of the lessons in the novel a step further in the play and tries to show us the beauty of everyday, simple life — a gift to be treasured and appreciated as it is lived.”
The lesson isn’t lost on Tre Womack, who portrays Howie, the milkman. The 16-year-old Caledonia High School sophomore said, “It shows what we miss through life, how we waste time, how we take things for granted.”
Like everyone else in the cast, Tre works at balancing the demands of his days with the night commitment required for a theatrical production.
“It’s difficult, but I work hard for it because acting is what I want to do in life, so I push through and keep going,” he said. “I want to do this in college.”
It takes support from families at home — the spouses and children of adult cast members, and parents and siblings of the younger ones. They help actors run lines, shuttle them to and from rehearsals, make do for dinner and cover on chores.
“But it’s important,” said Adrienne Cockrell, whose 14-year-old son Douglas is in the play. “They’re doing something they already love that helps them to be confident in front of other people, and giving back to their community with the gifts they were born with.”
Wilder once called “Our Town” his favorite of all his works. It asks the audience to appreciate the treasure to be found in the smallest moments.
“Theater brings art to life,” said Hintz. “I think Thornton Wilder does that, shows us that even our everyday lives can be works of art.”
How to go
Tickets for “Our Town” are $10 in advance at the Rosenzweig Arts Center, 501 Main St. They may also be purchased online at columbus-arts.org. Or contact the arts center at 662-328-2787 Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets at the door, if available, are $12.
Performances at the arts center are Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m., with additional matinee performances at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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