note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Joe Coyne
Playwright Thornton Wilder
Director Marc S. Miller
"Our Town" may well be the most performed play in the United States, give or take a few Shakespearian yeomen. Like Yogi could have said, it's done so often, no one does it anymore.
The Theater at Old South with some reluctance chose the play as their annual, non-musical production and as always "Our Town" is a great choice. Like an annual (okay a five year annual) seasonal Dickens' Christmas Carol, the audience can bear rehearing the simple richness of Thornton Wilder directing our thoughts, of his "follow along with me now" instructional narrator. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 for Wilder, his second of three. I guess it is clear, "Our Town" is on a very short list for my favorite play.
Introduced by a narrator (Stage Manager) the story follows two households, both alike in dignity in fair Grover's Corner, New Hampshire where the scene is laid without an ancient grudge in sight. What happens is nothing more than a repetition of life's cycle of birth, marriage and death. The Webb's and the Gibbs' are identical and they represent all of us. Like the beans the women are trimming, you can not tell them apart. And you are not supposed to. Wilder lets the narrator take us from the triviality and important dates of one couples life, pointing out the generic, the nonessential, then back through details and on to universalities. The story is all over the place on Time. At one point we are watching the deceased Emily Gibbs, watching herself on her 12th birthday being reminded we are in a theater: the present, the past and the future. We are at the narrator's bidding and control, yet at times the narrator joins the audience as observer.
With the umbrella scene this production got it right on: the monoexpressive dead watching the burial and a joyful Emily taking her place alongside the Dead. Playing with our understanding of what it might be like: the "living" in the dark, as if in little boxes, and blind as well as ignorant. It is not the living talking about the dead but the reverse. It is those still alive that are zombied and unreachable. For the first time even the stage manager defers to the Dead.
With such an open area (the performance space is on the second floor of the Old South Church in a very large hall with a stage at one end) there were better possibilities of laying out the two homes where most of the scenes take place and of having the cemetery "away" from the houses. The choice put much of the action cramped on two small platforms with no room to block. It was limiting to the actors as well as the production. Wilder has given such clear direction on the set - a bare stage - that utilization of more of the hall (limited lighting would be a consideration) might have opened up other possibilities as well.
Marla Welsford as Mrs Stimson gets the bitterest lines of the play, ". . . .trampling the feelings of others . . . always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another. . . . Ignorance and blindness" and bitter she is. Earlier Marla or rather her character after some drinking, walks her exit so steadily unsteady it looks experienced.
James Dittami as George Gibbs stares in blankness at most things as he ages from 16 to 19. He is great at the dumb wonderment look and has it down. When George is thinking of going to agricultural college, you can watch him thinking. He works at it and when he says within a few lines that he has made a decision, you believe via Mr. Dittami's looks, that he actually has come up with a decision not known to him when the play began.
Jeff Kane gets to grin all over with three young characters he portrays, just enjoying life: small parts but a pleasure to watch.
In the number of times I have seen this play, Professor Willard as yet to be as vibrant and comedic as Susan Steele portrayed her. It is usually an obtuse and towering, learned male professor from (who to insult) Harvard verbally stumbling through archaeozoic granite to Silas Peckham's cow pasture. Ms Steele does it physically with two old presidential stumbles and some other sight gags while still lecturing us with illucid learning and time eon data babble.
The Stage Manager (Michelle Dowd) with the director's permission played the role finding too many internal laughs; from the introduction of the actors, to describing the view from the cemetery. It became part of her chortle delivery and the chuckles seem more searched out than evident in the text.
Ms Dowd was best when telling us of the impossibility of expressing what, "We all know", delivered with a seriousness and intensity and the simple directness Wilder wrote. "We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names. . . . That something has to do with human beings."
There are very few roles in which you have the chance to step out, up and over the other actors. Gaining control of the stage earlier, stopping the action, introducing the learneds, commenting on the action all with more seriousness would have given her higher standing than just another of the actors. The authority seized on stage transforms to an authority to instruct us on universal truths. The Stage Manager should be showing us her processing of thought, not espousing the results. There is something, this certain thing, that even the omniscient Stage Manager does not know.
In the 64 years since the play was written there have been some changes in styles of living and while lines like we "were made to live two by two" have a hitch they are still mostly true, at least for now. Also Wilder starts us with wondering how Mrs Stimson will turn out: how will she turn out. We project this to how all of them will turn out and, internally, to how will we turn out. The usual understanding is you live, you learn, you die. Wilder turns this to: you live, you die, you learn.
The Theater at Old South's production drives home the message once again, but I feel a bit like Mr. Dittami's George in dumb wonderment, trying to truly understand that the preciousness of the simple moments of everyday life is life.