note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
With house lights on, the “Stage Manager” (award-winning director David Cromer, whom actor Joel Colodner replaced Dec. 31) stands on the sidelines, progressing forward, telling us about the little, fictitious New Hampshire town of Grovers Corners and its inhabitants. Meanwhile, two families, the Gibbs and the Webbs, bustle about in Cromer’s groundbreaking new version of three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author-playwright Thornton Wilder’s classic three-act play, “Our Town”.
When this Huntington Theatre Company production opened Dec. 7, word spread like wildfire about Cromer’s offbeat, 2-hour, 10-minute presentation, featuring a cast of 32, including 29 of Boston’s finest, handpicked actors in major and ensemble roles.
Within a week of opening, because of ticket demands, the play’s run was extended from Jan. 13 to Jan. 26. It’s easy to see why. Wilder’s play about a small town in 1901-1913 and its inhabitants, especially during this nostalgic holiday period and the horrific siege of violence that occurred recently in Newtown, Conn., strikes our very core --- our minds, our hearts, our hopes, dreams, happiness, grief, individually and communally --- regardless of time or era. Human nature and its longing for a blissfully loving, peaceful family and carefree existence affects everybody, even more vividly during these troubled times.
Many long to return to “Our Town’s” simpler times, when everyone knew, grew up with, married, and cared about each other; when most of Grovers Corners’ population remained in or returned to town. Their gravestones in the local cemetery bear testament to their existence.
As characters move through town (and us), Cromer offhandedly fills us in on who they are and their eventual fate. Time passes unsensationally, but the Stage Manager has a few surprises to tilt theatergoers off this homespun reverie.
Deferring to Wilder’s wishes, there’s no set and few props. Cromer and scenic designer Stephen Dobay use two tables and several chairs to change time and place. Costume designer Alison Siple uses contemporary everyday clothing instead of turn-of-the-century period costumes to denote the play’s timelessness. And Heather Gilbert’s lighting keeps the spotlight on everyone, from troubled, alcoholic church choirmaster-organist Simon Stimson (Nael Nacer) conducting the choir on the second-floor loft, to actors all around us --- in the corners, aisles, and on the small floor stage. The play spans 13 years, progressing through life’s milestones --- Act I, Daily Life, set in 1901; Act II, Love and Marriage in July 1904; and Act III, Death and Eternity in 1913 --- highlighting Grovers Corners townsfolk’s childhood, love, marriage, death, and a startling collective chorus’ supernatural look back from the grave.
In the opening act, while dads Dr. Frank Webb (Craig Mathers) and local newspaper editor Charles Webb (Christopher Tarjan) prepare to go to work, their wives Julia (Melinda Lopez) and Myrtle (Stacy Fischer) perform kitchen tasks. They’re unaware the Webbs’ pretty teen-age daughter Emily (Therese Plaehn) and the Gibbs’ popular athletic-agrarian son, George, (Derrick Trumbly) are admiring the moon, talking together from their bedroom windows, and falling in love.
Cromer makes sure theatergoers aren’t merely observers, but an integral part of “Our Town”. Throughout his narrative, the Stage Manager directly addresses individuals in the audience, at times enlisting their help in asking questions of the town historian, Prof. Willard (Richard Arum), Editor Webb, and others. During George and Emily’s wedding, chatty Louella Soames (Marianna Bassham) nudges a nearby theatergoer. “I just love weddings, don’t you?” she urges, dabbing tears from her eyes.
But when townsfolk realize life has passed them by too fast, leaving their dreams unfulfilled and too many words and emotions unspoken, we feel their pain.
There’s a reason why Wilder named his play “Our Town,” because it reflects the soul of Americana, then, now, and in the future. With Cromer’s production, we are all players, all townies, from Grovers Corners, reflecting on our lives and those we loved and lost.
This outstanding cast, interacting with us and each other, is our mirror, keeping us involved and entranced.
BOX INFO: Three-act, over two-hour play, written by Thornton Wilder, directed by David Cromer, starring topnotch Boston actors, through Jan. 26, in the Boston Center for the Arts‘ Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, at 8 p.m.; select Sundays at 7 p.m.; matinees, select Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Visit the box offices at the theater or 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, online at huntingtontheatre.org, or call 617-266-0800.