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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Our Town’

For what it’s worth, super film star Paul Newman is

marking his first return to Grover’s Corners since 1955. Newman, who

appeared in a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town,"

produced for television that year, played George. It was highlighted

with songs by Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Kahn ("The Impatient

Years," and "Love and Marriage," now standards) and it

starred Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager.

Almost half a century later, Newman, having earned his silver hair,

has now graduated to playing the Stage Manager, and he plays the famed

narrative driven role with a warmth, sincerity and artistry that makes

this Westport Country Playhouse production a pleasure. Under James

Naughton’s earnest direction, the rest of the cast admirably supports

its magnetic star.

What is so remarkable and strange is that no matter how sophisticated

we think we are today, or how immune we are to experiencing real emotion

in the theater, Thornton Wilder’s quietly poetic masterpiece, when

allowed to reside in its own unique aura, dares to ignore our smarts

and plummet us smack into the middle of Grover’s Corners, U.S.A. It

is also striking how certain landmark plays have a way of impressing

different generations, audiences, let alone actors, in completely

different ways.

In the best of all Wilder worlds, one hopes to get an unabashedly

familiar but blatantly honest look at "Our Town’s" inhabitants

from the outside. This, while the play addresses us on the inside.

The play’s immortality lies in the courageousness of its conviction

that the wonder and drama of birth, life, and death can be as powerfully

gripping for the non-heroic inhabitants of Grover’s Corners as any

character in a classical Greek tragedy.

Audiences have thanked Wilder for more than 65 years

now for reminding them that less is more. If the prescribed minimalism

is given a little more adornment and dressing up than usual for this

play by set and costume designer Tony Walton, the lighting by Richard

Pilbrow envelopes the otherwise unsparing simplicity of "Our Town."

The simplicity of it has a way of eluding memory, not because it doesn’t

remain fresh and eventful, but because everyday life, as depicted

here, is reduced to its essence rather than the melodramatic or contrived.

Every director of "Our Town" has a responsibility to keep

the life in Grover’s Corner earnestly simple and touching. Director

Naughton seems to be following a more plodding rather than purposeful

path to reverence, the key roles have in their favor a stylistic conformity.

Emily’s romance with the half-petrified, half-ardent George is unquestionably

the heart of the play. Maggie Lacy, as Emily, has an appealing natural

quality that works beautifully as a catalyst for George’s feelings.

As George, Ben Fox may be working his wholesomeness to excess. However,

both of these attractive young actors appear to the era born.

A virtuoso piece, if there is such a thing in a play, is John Braden’s

hilarious lecture, as Professor Willard, on the geological history

of Grover’s Corners. Another excellent richly detailed performance

(he mimes to perfection every note of the hymn on the invisible organ)

comes from Stephen Spinella, as Simon Stimson, the church’s music

master and suicidal town drunk.

The soul of Grover’s Corners is George’s parents, Dr. Gibbs (Frank

Converse) and Mrs. Gibbs (Jayne Atkinson); Emily’s parents, editor

Webb (Conor Donovan) and Mrs. Webb (Jane Curtin) and parents everywhere

who instill in their children the message that living and loving are

all that really matters during the short time we are here. Given Atkinson’s

lovely performance as Mrs. Gibbs, the undemanding attentive wife and

occasionally preoccupied mother, it is it easy to see just how Wilder’s

profoundly simple chronicle of small-town life must have shamelessly

manipulated its first audiences in 1938 when it had its world premiere

at Princeton’s McCarter Theater.

Time goes by so quickly that we need a Stage Manager, an all-knowing

New Englander who talks to both the townsfolk and the audience, to

set the stage and guide us through the joys and sorrows that tie a

town together for 12 years at the turn of the last century. There

has been no better guide in my memory than Newman, who neither lets

us down colloquially nor in his deliberately reserved facetiousness,

offering as inviting an invitation to Grover’s Corners as one is likely

to get. Two stars. Maybe you should have stayed home.

— Simon Saltzman

Our Town, Booth Theater, 222 West 45 Street, New York.

Tickets from Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200, $75. To

January 26.

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