note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Larry Stark
A Review by Daniel Gewertz
"Wherever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense." Thornton Wilder wrote that line 75 years ago. It is more true today. There are artistic exceptions to the rule of nonsense, of course, and one of the most magnificent is Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Our Town."
Director David Cromer's new staging of "Our Town," currently at Huntington Theatre's Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, is a major, triumphant production of one of the greatest plays written in the last century. I can also simply say it is one of the theater-going highlights of my life.
The play's reputation has been misrepresented over the years as a sentimental memorial to American small town virtues. That couldn't be further from the truth. What Wilder was after in 1938 was big, experimental theater. It is a work that eschews the details of realism and replaces them with small town archetypes. Despite the everydayness of "Our Town," it reaches the metaphysical with easy grace and humor. It's also meta-theater. Yet unlike most experimental theater, it hits the heart first and the head second. (I admit to tearing up through even the happy parts.)
When "Our Town" played its pre-Broadway run at the Wilbur Theater in 1938, Bostonians reportedly hated it. They couldn't get used to the bare stage and the lack of props. It was just too modern for Boston. Since that failure, however, it is the play's great success that makes it tough to pull off today with original power intact. It has, after all, long been the "official" classic of American theater. Its decades in high school English curriculums make it seem musty.
So to bring it fully alive again on stage can take both nerve and vision. Director David Cromer has both. In 2009, at New York City's Barrow Street Theatre, Cromer brought new vision to this most visionary play, and now he does the same with a Boston cast at Huntington's Calderwood Pavilion.
To call it a reinvention gives the wrong impression: Every word is as Wilder wrote it, and no character's nature is turned upside down. Yet it is still an "Our Town" for 2012. The Huntington calls it a re-imagination. That's fitting.
Just entering the small Roberts Theater was disorientating for me. Everything from the entrances to the seating is changed around for this theater-in-the-round presentation. Upon walking in I actually thought, mistakenly, that I'd come across a theater-space I'd never visited before. The lighting is as bright on the seats as it is on the small, nearly bare, stage. These are early hints that director Cromer is trying to surprise the audience as effectively as the audiences in 1938 were surprised. When the stage manager/narrator comes on stage (played by the director himself, as in the lengthy New York run) he arrives before the crowd is ready for him. We haven't shushed down yet. At first, I thought it might be one of those common before-the-show spiel about cell-phones and flash cameras. But no, it was the famous introductory speech sneaking up on us. Cromer cuts a modern figure, purposefully, and holds a smart phone instead of a notepad. His vocal cadence is swift, his mood no nonsense. He doesn't seem folksy, and for "Our Town," that's an innovation unto itself.
There is no attempt to make the characters look like 1901, the period of the first act. They are all dressed in modern garb, simple and casual. Mrs. Gibbs is in blue jeans.
Normally, the stage manager is the only character who is an emissary from our present world. The casual, modern dress extends the sense that "Our Town" is more about life itself and less about Grovers Corners, New Hampshire from 1901 to 1913.
There is not a single weak link among the large cast. Special note must be paid to the young lovers at the center of the plot: Therese Plaehn as Emily Webb and Derrick Trumbly as George Gibbs. David Cromer, as the Stage Manager, also deserves the highest praise. And as a director, he knows how to get more from a pause than some can get with a whole speech. Some of the play's best laughs are the pauses between Plaehn and Trumbly.
Not every innovation works. Emily's trip back to the life of Grover's Corners in Act 3 was beautifully designed, yet the use of strong New Hampshire accents for that one scene was just odd. And having mothers and their daughters look pretty much the same age was also perplexing. There should've even been a big age gap between Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. (Though realism, as I've noted, wasn't Wilder's point here.)
Every effective staging of "Our Town," I suppose, makes one realize the preciousness of life. But 75 years after this play was written I have to say that for me there's an extra layer of dismay. This glimpse into a small town before mass media took our lives over -- the age before even radio -- makes me grieve for an age when people were intimately connected to the stars, moon, sun and wind. When they got their news from a local paper and their wisdom, whatever there was of it, from each other, and a few old books.
Small town life will never be the same. But it is wonderful to discover that time and "progress" has not dimmed "Our Town's" beauty nor dulled its grave power. It's still the essential American 20th century dramatic essay on mortality and the value of daily life.
(Huntington Theatre Company presents "Our Town" at the Calderwood Pavilion, at the BCA. Roberts Theatre. Run extended through January 26.)