Take Our Town, a classic, Pulitzer-prize-winning play set in a fictional New Hampshire town in the early 20th century. Transport it to an actual community in Southern California 100 years later, and introduce a Latinx family living next door to a Caucasian one. The result is The Last, Best Small Town by Los Angeles playwright John Guerra, being brought to life at Seaver Theatre on the Pomona College campus for five performances March 3-6.
Set in Fillmore, a real town with about 15,000 residents located in an agricultural region of Ventura County, the play traces the experiences of the fictional Miller and Gonzalez families between 2006 and 2009. As the first decade of the 21st century unfolds, the children of these next door neighbors come of age, fall in love, and suffer loss as they continually hunt for their place in a world that can no longer promise them a better life than their parents.
The play stars seven students and a visiting professional actor. Director Ernie González, Jr., himself a working actor, says that the students “are learning a lot from the process of the play and working alongside a professional.” González is a recent adjunct professor at Pomona College who is a multi-faceted performer in theatre and film as well as an educator and director in the entertainment industry. Giovanni Molina Ortega, faculty advisor for the production, is an assistant professor of theatre and dance at the college.
Mark Diaz ’22, a theatre major at Pomona, brought The Last, Best Small Town to the college’s play selection committee in 2021. He noted that he had been looking for a long time for a show that “reflects what it means to be a Mexican American person living in Los Angeles.” Diaz, who plays Elliott Gonzalez in the production, says that in this play, “everything rang true.” And, says Diaz, the story reflected “a lot of things I’ve been able to see in my own family.”
Rosie Corr ’23, who double majors in theatre and economics, also found the play to be powerful. “The first time I read it, something struck me,” she says. “It’s one of those really special plays that you read and you can’t get out of your head.” She found the character of Maya Miller especially compelling. “When I first read the play a year and a half ago, I was like ‘Wow, I would love to play that character.’” Corr adds, “I’m so honored to have ended up in this part that just feels so special to me.”
Winning the part was, for each of the students, a part of the learning experience. Auditions with Director González were entirely virtual. “I was adamant about that as a professional actor,” he says. “Right now the industry is having Zoom auditions and Zoom chemistry reads. “I was on Euphoria on HBO and I got it on a Zoom audition. It’s great that the students had the opportunity to audition on Zoom.”
The first audition for each cast member was individual, but callbacks were an entirely different experience. Celia Parry ’24, a politics major, discovered that not only were all the actors called back to read for the Willow Miller in the same Zoom room—so were all the prospective Hank Millers, also. “I learned a lot from the audition, which I hadn’t necessarily expected,” she says—"getting to see other people do it, their own takes on it.”
Corr hopes to build a career in theatre after graduation and is currently auditioning across the country for summer programs—all on Zoom. “Pre-COVID you would have had to fly to New York and New Jersey and Boston to audition for these programs,” she says. Online auditions “drastically increases accessibility, which I think is super great.”
The Last, Best Small Town is a new play that was first staged in the second half of 2021. This is the first time it has been undertaken as a student production. Following the 8 p.m. performance on Saturday, March 5, the playwright and the director will engage with the audience in a talk-back session. The Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. will include an ASL interpreter.
The enthusiasm of the students for theatre remained strong despite pandemic disruptions starting in 2020 that required moving performances online. Youssef El Mosalami ’24, who portrays the Playwright in the new production, says he jumped into online show opportunities such as Little Women with green screens, makeup and lights, and with costumes that were sent through the mail.
Now, the students look forward to being on the live stage. Says Parry, “There’s just something so special about being in a theatre. It’s such a special place. I cannot be more excited that we are back in person.”
The Last, Best Small Town runs Thursday through Sunday, March 3-6 at the Seaver Theatre, 300 E. Bonita Ave. in Claremont. Proof of vaccination or an ID card for one of the Claremont Colleges is required, as are masks indoors.