When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opens at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Thursday, Sept. 26, the actor playing the role of Mr. Webb just may look familiar.
Maybe you recognize him from his role in the film “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” or as the guy in a series of Bud Light commercials that refused to share his beer.
Or maybe it’s because you sat behind him at a holy day service at Temple Sinai.
Marc Epstein, who has been living in Pittsburgh with his wife, Judy Kaplan, and their two children since 2004, has had a career that has spanned from London, to New York, to Los Angeles to, now, Pittsburgh.
In addition to creating a myriad of characters on stage, screen and television, the Oakland resident is also a theater teacher who has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and Seton Hill University, as well as various summer workshops for children.
The role of “Our Town’s” Mr. Webb — the father of Emily, and the editor of the small town’s newspaper — will mark Epstein’s first foray onto the stage of the O’Reilly Theater.
After years of teaching, Epstein decided to focus again on acting, and attended open auditions at the Public Theater last spring for its 2013-2014 season.
He auditioned for Producing Artistic Director Ted Pappas, the director of “Our Town” and several other shows this season. Pappas offered Epstein the role of Mr. Webb a week later.
“Marc’s warmth, charm and humor is exactly what Thornton Wilder had in mind when he wrote the role of Editor Webb,” said Pappas. “In this business, Marc Epstein is what we call ‘a find.’ ”
“Our Town” was first produced in 1938 on Broadway, and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. It is set in a small town called Grover’s Corners, and centers on the romance of next-door neighbors George Gibbs and Emily Webb as it explores universal themes of love, marriage and death.
Epstein sees a certain Jewish sensibility about the play.
“Although it doesn’t deal with Jewish things in particular, it deals with something I feel is important within Judaism,” he said, noting that the idea of community is central to the play.
“It’s like ‘Our Shtetl,’ ” he said. “The idea of having a small community in which people know each other and feel responsible for each other is, I think, a very important Jewish idea.
“While there are not any Jews in this particular town,” he continued, “the things about ‘Our Town’ that make it a classic with universal appeal are the ideas of love, loss and routine, and obviously the idea of faith.”
The play is careful, he added, to not promote any one particular faith, though.
“It’s simply the routine of a life in a small town,” he said. “I think the Jewish community in Pittsburgh can particularly feel close to that. It’s a very straightforward treatment of universal feelings.”
Epstein grew up in the Bowery in Manhattan, “when it was called the Lower East Side; now it’s the trendy East Village,” he laughed.
He spent time performing in London and New York before heading out to Los Angeles, where he worked in several sitcoms and commercials, as well as live theater.
But when he became a father, he decided to come to Pittsburgh — his wife is from Beaver Falls — to pursue teaching so that he would be able to be home at night for his children.
Theater seems to run in the blood of the Epstein clan. The son of an actor, Epstein is also the father to two aspiring performers, ages 11 and 13, who both attend Pittsburgh CAPA in the musical theater program.
While admitting he has “a little shpilkes” about their following in his footsteps, “I’m doing my best to encourage them,” he said.
In fact, his wife, a teacher at Temple Sinai’s religious school, also has gotten into the act, performing a puppet version of the story of Jonah along with their daughter for the congregation on Yom Kippur.
Epstein appreciates the Jewish community here, he said, and sees the value of such a community played out in the story of “Our Town.”
“I think this is a play that tells the story of everyone’s life,” he said. “This is a universal story that plays on everyone’s heartstrings — and hopefully, we’ll get a few laughs, too.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)