Despite the many excellent productions in 2013 by theaters commemorating the 75th anniversary of the world premiere of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” (which took place at Princeton’s McCarter Theater in 1938), the production now at the George Street Playhouse has just succeeded in taking its place high on the list of the many excellent “Our Towns” that I have seen in my lifetime.
The classic American drama rightfully remains a perennial favorite of audiences everywhere and evidently for all time. Even arriving a year after the anniversary, this production can claim a number of distinctions of its own. Most importantly it marks the theater’s first collaboration with the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. But it is also proudly proclaiming that the key and central role of the narrator is being played by Boyd Gaines, one of America’s finest and most lauded award-winning actors. But more on Mr. Gaines’ memorable performance later.
So, as she has been doing these many years since the play opened, Emily Gibbs nee Webb — the young wife who has recently died during childbirth and is buried in the hilltop cemetery in Grover’s Corners — is preparing to visit her parents’ home in the small New Hampshire town — one that seems to exist within a galaxy of stars, thanks to the imaginative work of designers Riccardo Hernandez (setting) and Scott Zielinski (lighting).
Those hundreds of stars, actually tiny bulbs that hang impressively from the rafters throughout the auditorium, give the illusion that Grover’s Corners has been assigned an eternal resting place in the cosmos. Except for the traditional use of two tables, some chairs, and a pair of ladders for decor, that is about all the affectation and pretension that defines this disarming production, under the direction of David Esbjornson. The play’s famous minimalism remains as it should, but rarely has it been so beautifully embraced.
Esbjornson — renowned as a director on Broadway (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Goat or Who is Sylvia”), Off Broadway (“The Play about the Baby,” “Tuesdays With Morrie”), and international stages (including the London and Australian productions of “Driving Miss Daisy”), and now chair of the Rutgers theater program — made a good move to pick Gaines to head the company. Since the director worked with Gaines on the London and Australian productions of “Driving Miss Daisy,” he knew what an inspiration and impact this actor would have on the ensemble as well as on Wilder’s ingratiating host in Grover’s Corners. Although clad in black and soft-peddling the New Hampshire drawl, there is nothing otherwise somber about Gaines or in his casual manner as he interacts as winningly with the audience as he does on occasion with the folk of Grover’s Corners.
Whether you have seen many or no other productions of “Our Town,” it is the simplest approach that seems to work the best, allowing the ritualistic-stylistic conformity of the text to pave the way for characters to stand out and affect us emotionally. It doesn’t take long to feel Esbjornson’s imprint in the splendid performances by a company that has been notably enhanced with graduates and undergraduates from the acting program at Rutgers. Everyone from the pros to the young up-and-coming actors radiate as one cohesive and polished ensemble: Collectively they are bringing an air of freshness to the text.
What is so remarkable is that no matter how sophisticated we think we are today, or how immune we are to experiencing real emotion in the theater, Wilder’s quietly poetic masterpiece, when allowed to reside in its own unique aura, dares to ignore our smarts. It is also striking how certain landmark plays have a way of impressing different generations and audiences, let alone directors and actors, in completely different ways.
In the best of all Wilder worlds, one hopes to get an unabashedly familiar but blatantly honest look at the town’s inhabitants from the outside 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 for any character in a classical Greek tragedy.
Emily’s romance with the half-petrified, half-ardent George is unquestionably the heart of the play. Strawberry blonde Aaron Ballard is a wonderful Emily, just pretty and spunky enough to win the heart of the awkwardly romantic George, winningly played by Pico Alexander.
The sentimental portions of the play are balanced with humorous bits. We are, as always, amused by Professor Willard’s (Wally Dunn) unintentionally funny lecture on the geological history of Grover’s Corners. Matthew Lawler stumbles about more tragically than ever as the play’s most inscrutable character, Simon Stimson, the church’s suicidal music maestro, also known as the town drunk.
The soul of Grover’s Corners is reflected in the parents of the young couple: Dr. Gibbs (Sean Cullen) and Mrs. Gibbs (Kati Brazda) on George’s side, and newspaper editor Webb (Lee Sellars) and Mrs. Webb (Kathleen McNenny) on Emily’s. If the play reveals anything significant about life it is that our labors and our loves are all that really matter in the short time we are here.
The role of the Stage Manager has been played by many notables on New York stages. Frank Craven played the stage manager in the original 1938 production (as well as in the 1940 film version that featured William Holden as George). Henry Fonda played the stage manager in the 1969 Broadway revival, as did Spalding Gray in the 1988 Lincoln Center revival and Paul Newman in a Broadway revival in 2002. I am so pleased to say that Boyd Gaines’ performance is among the best and one that you don’t want to miss.
Our Town, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8 p.m., Thursdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Through Sunday, May 25. $20 to $67. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.