February 28, 2009

"Our Town" is My Kind of Town

Our Town is one of those shows that everyone feels they know. And, in some ways, everyone does because for decades it was a favorite of high school drama teachers everywhere. I think they liked it because Thornton Wilder’s play about life in a small New England town at the turn of the last century seemed to celebrate an old-fashioned regard for family and community. Because the playwright’s famous stage directions “No Curtains. No Scenery” meant the school budget only had to spring for a few props. And because the play offers plenty of speaking parts and even the least talented kids could play one of the silent dead townspeople in the final act. But as I watched the striking new production of Our Town that opened at the Barrow Street Theatre this week, it hit me that the best time to appreciate the play’s true message about the evanescence of life isn’t when you’re young and feeling as though you’ll live forever but when, like me, you’ve begun to grapple with your own mortality.

But that isn’t why I initially wanted to see this version of Our Town. I went because I wanted to see what its director David Cromer would do with the play.
Last month, my friend Terry Teachout, the theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, praised a production of The Glass Menagerie that Cromer had staged for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and declared him one of the most exciting directors in the country today. “Mr. Cromer,” Terry wrote, “has the uncanny ability to take a too-familiar script and make it seem entirely new—yet it is his special gift to serve the plays that he stages, rather than twisting them into unrecognizable and irrelevant shapes. Such is the essence of re-creative genius.” (Click here to read more of Terry’s review.)

My buddy Bill and I had seen and loved Cromer’s terrific reinvention of Adding Machine at the Minetta Lane last year and so we were eager to catch his Our Town.
And he didn’t disappoint. Cromer has reconfigured the Barrow Street Theatre so that there is no barrier between the stage and the audience, which sits on risers around three sides of the floor-level playing space. Bill and I were seated in the front row and had to tuck in our toes as the actors walked by.

The lines between those performing and watching are further blurred by having the lights stay on during the performance, dressing the actors in regular
everyday street clothes and having them make their entrances and exits through the audience so that you’re never quite sure who’s in the play and who isn’t. One handsome silver-haired man sitting across from us kept leaning forward and I expected him to join the play at any moment but he turned out to be just a rapt audience member.

The realistic tone of the production is set right from the start when Cromer, who also appears as the Stage Manager who narrates the play, stands in the middle of the audience and, without any fanfare, begins speaking his lines. He bares a distinct resemblance to the actor Ian Holm and is totally comfortable and unaffected in the role. The actors he’s chosen—some holdovers from Chicago where the production debuted—are just as natural. Interestingly enough, Anna D. Shapiro, the Tony-winning director of August: Osage County, is mounting yet another production of Our Town in Chicago this month (click here to read a comparison of the two in Chicago Magazine).

Because nearly everything else in Cromer’s concept of the play has been stripped away, the entire focus is on the actors. And for the most part they merit that attention. With one significant lapse. The final scene, set in a graveyard, is usually the emotional heart of Our Town but Jennifer Grace, who plays the heroine Emily, didn’t quite deliver the epiphany that the rest of the show promised on the night Bill and I saw it. Still, I saw tears in the eyes of many audience members as the actors took their bows.

Our Town is now such a revered classic that I was surprised to read about its troubled beginnings in Ethan Mordden’s “All that Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959.” According to Mordden, Boston theatergoers were so turned off by the play when it opened there in 1938 that the Massachusetts governor’s wife led a walkout on opening night, forcing the show to close. Producer-director Jed Harris had to scramble to find a Broadway home for it, only to have it draw mixed reviews when he did.

Luckily, one of the positive notices came from the influential and insightful New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson who declared it “a beautifully haunting play.” The show went on to play 336 performances after that, to win a Pulitzer Prize, and to be revived four times on Broadway, including the now-legendary 2002 production with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. If current theater lovers are lucky, the Cromer production will enjoy a long run too.

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