THE first time I saw this play I thought of it simply as an endearing and moving portrait of small town America, topped with a moving third act.
But returning to it a couple of decades later, I see it through fresh eyes after this production by the Royal Exchange.
If this play came with a health warning it would be something along the lines of "small towns can seriously damage your dreams." For instance, will the bright and lively Emily Webb escape the confines of her home town or is she set to have her potential stifled by its cosy, never changing daily routine?
The pace of Thornton Wilder's play is forensically slow at times. But I guess this dupes the audience into believing they've entered some kind of American idyll. In terms of the outside world it's over there somewhere and the townsfolk can initially leave their doors open without fear of being robbed. How people of a certain vintage ache for those days.
In the third act designer Fly Davis creates a spectacle so touching it had me, a hardened hack, biting my lip. Emily is at the centre of it, expertly played by Norah Lopez Holden, a pretty young actress who, on the evidence of this performance, is certainly one to watch. Holden brilliantly grows up before our very eyes, from the exuberant adolescent to a moreknowing young woman.
Davis's design is curious to say the least. The first two acts take place in what looked and felt like a school exam room. But I can forgive him for the visual treat he gives us in act three, with "snow" cascading from the theatre roof. That was a moment of true, theatrical beauty.
Unfortunately it took me until act three to really care about the characters, despite the best efforts of the always watchable Graeme Hawley who plays Emily's dad and Patrick Elue as Emily's love interest, George. Youssef Kerkour cuts a powerful presence as the Stage Manager, the narrator of the piece.
* Until October 14. The box office is on 0161 833 9833. Star rating - ***