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Wilder's `Our Town' Plays in Home Town

OUR TOWN Play by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Charles Morey. At the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, N.H.,through Sunday.

SIXTY years ago, the first professional production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" outside New York was staged in this small New Hampshire town nestled at the foot of Mt. Monadnock.

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Since then, the town of Peterborough, which many believe inspired the playwright's telescopic view of small-town life at the turn of the century, has seen several revivals of the play, including this year's production.

At the time of the first Peterborough staging, Rosanna Cox was a 17-year-old apprentice at the Peterborough Players. As part of the summer stock company, Ms. Cox has since played in three productions of "Our Town," including this year's, the centerpiece of the Players' 60th-anniversary season.

In both 1976 and 1983 she played middle-aged Mother Gibbs. This time, as with other returning cast members, she's moved further up the generational ladder to play the "senior" role of Mrs. Soames, tearful attendant at the wedding in Act II.

"This year's cast," Cox says of the Peterborough reunion, "represents the growth and development of the human family, which Wilder was attempting to document in his play."

The patriarch of that family is director Charles Morey, who was artistic director of the Players from 1977 to 1988, before moving to Salt Lake City to oversee Pioneer Theatre Company.

In a reprise of his 1976 performance as the show's avuncular narrator, the Stage Manager, Morey is not the only one privy to the fact that the generational cycles in "Our Town" mirror those in his own life.

Local residents are well aware that his wife, Joyce Cohen, is this year's Mrs. Webb, the mother of the female lead character she played 10 years ago when the actress and director first started dating. That their son, eight-year-old Will Morey, is making his Peterborough debut as Wally Webb seems only fitting.

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Familiarity and family relationships among the cast seem apt in a community such as Peterborough, which takes its immortalization somewhat seriously. Everyone in the town, which has a population of 5,000, seems to know that the show's Howey Newsome (played this year by Richard Matthews) was based on local dairyman Fletcher Dole.

The debate still simmers, if not rages now and then, over the exact location of the famous drugstore where George (Mark Niebuhr) and Emily (Raye Lankford) slurp their ice-cream sodas before deciding to marry.

"The investment in doing a local production of `Our Town' is almost palpable," says Morey, who thinks it is the Great American Play. "It's like doing the Passion Play in Jerusalem. There's a sense that you're doing the show with the community and that its meaning to their lives goes well beyond an evening's entertainment."

Producing an American classic in its signature town, however, does not permit any collapse into what Morey calls "cloying folksiness" and sentimentality - which he believes many less-careful productions of "Our Town" suffer from.

Morey and his Peterborough cast are keen on preserving Wilder's darker sensibility of human and cosmic comparisons in their production without eclipsing the play's rock-hard faith in the transcendence of the human spirit.

It is something similar to, but less tangible than, any one performance of "Our Town" that impels Cox to characterize what she's doing this summer at the Peterborough Players as a "spiritual experience."

* `Our Town' is performed tonight at 8 p.m. Tickets are $21; Sat. 8 p.m., $22.50; Sun. matinee 2 p.m., $18, and Sun. evening 7 p.m., $19.50. For children 16 and under, $10 at all performances.

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