Wendy Lehr first encountered Thornton Wilder's Our Town as a teenager. "It was a watershed moment for me. We read it in English class. When my teacher got to Emily's speech, she was weeping in class. It opened my eyes a bit," she says.
Lehr returns to the show starting this weekend, performing as the Stage Manager in Theatre Latte Da's music-infused production.
"It's a really interesting assignment," she says of the role. "In the best sense of the term, I consider myself a character actor. It is creating a character that is really interesting to me. What you bring to the Stage Manager is essentially yourself. You are the mouthpiece for Thornton Wilder. I have so few scenes where I interact with the other actors. Everything else is commentary and narration and description. You're just out there."
The play takes place in a small New England town and focuses on the rhythms and experiences of everyday life. The work grows increasingly cosmic, as much of the third act takes place in the graveyard among the characters who have died.
Casting Lehr in a role traditionally played by a man isn't the only shift made by director Peter Rothstein. The company is multi-ethnic. "I think Peter's idea was 'our' town -- this area and this time and the people who live here. He cast people whose faces are reflections of our town. It is not at all a museum production where everything is done the way it always has been done," she says.
There is also the music. A selection of turn-of-the-20th-century songs, from the likes of Stephen Foster and Scott Joplin, makes ups the score. To underscore the notion of this being an Our Town for the community, the company also serves as the orchestra.
"It works on several levels," Lehr says of the music. "It sets the time and the tone. You also see them in the community in several iterations. It is just lovely to see the constable picking on the banjo or Mr. Webb playing the string bass. It's an act of community that amplifies the sense of community in the play."
The whole experience has been "exhilarating. You don't just sit back and let the play wash over you. You are constantly challenged to listen to what the people are saying. The idea [of the production] has grown organically. It is revealing itself. That is very palpable," Lehr says.
IF YOU GO:
In previews through Friday; opens Saturday through April 6
The Lab Theater
700 N. First St., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 612.339.3003 or visit online.