Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” has been called “the great American drama” and with good reason. The work — set in “every town” in early 20th-century New England — packs a lot of Americana into its three acts.
Yet the innovative drama also has also deep New Jersey roots, and a series of events gathering critical mass over the next several weeks in New Brunswick will make those connections more pronounced.
“Hub City Our Town” is the moniker that downtown New Brunswick is using to tout its spring celebration of the arts — one gathered around the drama’s sense of community.
The festival was developed with George Street Playhouse — which presents a production of the play from Tuesday, April 22, through Sunday, May 25 — and several other important city arts organizations.
Since the play is the thing, it is important to focus first on the work.
“Our Town” — which marked its 75th anniversary in 2013 — is less a story than a meditation on the phenomenon of life. The thread that binds the drama’s seams is the simple stuff of life: growing up, falling in love, and dying.
A principal character is Emily Webb, who takes the audience through universally shared moments. While her untimely death is moving enough, it is her realizations — after death — that make the play poignant.
This is especially true when — after her death and ignoring the warnings of other departed towns people — she returns unobserved to earth for an inconsequential day from her past and becomes overwhelmed by the miracle of simple moments that go unnoticed by the living.
The lines Emily speaks when she cannot endure the beauty any longer and has to return to the netherworld may be the most moving lines in theater history: “Goodbye to clocks ticking — and my butternut tree! And Mama’s sunflowers — and food and coffee — and new-ironed dresses and hot baths — and sleeping and waking up! Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
Her question is answered by the character Stage Manager with another heartbreaker, “No. Saints and poets maybe … they do some.” It is a line that makes us want to realize what is around us and how fragile our lives are.
The use of the Stage Manager — a device that paradoxically calls attention to the play’s artifice while simultaneously exploiting it for dramatic purposes — is one of the innovations that justifiably makes “Our Town” ground breaking. With bare stage and obvious props, the work seems to strip drama down to its basics: actors creating moments that audiences follow and in turn be moved. Again the presence of real life is emphasized.
While the technique was daring for American drama at a time when theater often attempted to create and illustrate worlds on the stage, it was not foreign to Wilder, who used it earlier in 1931 in “The Happy Journey to Camden and Trenton.” The one-act is set in a car, needs no scenery (just chairs), and uses a Stage Manager who interacts with the main character (Mrs. Kirby) and engages her in dialogue filled with human longing and wonder.
The title makes an obvious connection to New Jersey — or more to the point — Lawrenceville where the playwright lived while teaching French at the Lawrenceville School — after receiving his master’s degree in French from Princeton University in 1926.
The play’s “happy journey” follows a ride from Newark through Trenton to Camden that brings the family down Route 206 where they point out a home — one that just happens to be the one in which the playwright lived.
Seven years later and about a dozen miles north up the road, the now full-time writer saw his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Our Town” have its world premiere at McCarter Theater in Princeton — forever linking the playwright and his American play with the heart of New Jersey.
The current George Street Playhouse production in New Brunswick honors innovation by making one of its own: the inaugural production of a multi-year collaboration between the professional theater company and Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts theater program.
Four-time Tony Award-winning Broadway actor Boyd Gaines assumes the role of Stage Manager. Gaines, known for his prize-winning roles in both plays and musicals, has performed with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave in the New York and London productions of “Driving Miss Daisy,” with Richard Thomas in the New York production of “An Enemy of the People,” with Patti Lapone in the Broadway revival of “Gypsy,” and other pedigree productions. Last year he directed the Bucks County Playhouse production of “The Allergist’s Wife.”
The production is under the direction of theater veteran David Esbjornson, head of Mason Gross School of the Arts theater department, who directed the already mentioned production of “Driving Miss Daisy” as well as Edward Albee’s “Lady From Dubuque” for the Signature Theater, “Measure for Measure” for Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater, the world premiere of “Appomatox” by Christopher Hampton at the Guthrie Theater, “Death of a Salesman” for the Gate Theater in Dublin, and more.
The remainder of the cast of 19 includes a mixture of theater veterans, university alumni and students, and community members. The production includes design work by Riccardo Hernadez (designer for the recent “Porgy and Bess” at the Gershwin), costumes by Beth Clancy (Broadway’s “A Christmas Story”), and lights by Scott Zielinski (the Broadway production of “Topdog/Underdog” and McCarter Theater’s productions of “The Illiad” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”).
In addition to some members of the community on the stage, the George Street production will also include the town of New Brunswick through the “Faces of Our Town” installation that uses projections of images of people in the community on the facade of the building. That project was developed by designer, artist, and Mason Gross faculty member Atif Akin, who creates international projects that use electronic arts to create social engagement.
To make the connection between community and theater even stronger, George Street Playhouse also will present “Our Town Now.” The event involves members of the New Brunswick community who write and perform a piece of theater that celebrates their experience working and living in our town. That performance is Saturday, May 17, at 2 p.m. at George Street Playhouse.
This new level of community-connected theater came from the efforts of GSP education director Jim Jack, who says, “When George Street Playhouse and Mason Gross School of the Arts decided ‘Our Town’ would be the first production of its new partnership, I felt this was a wonderful opportunity to reach out into the community to reflect the spirit of our town New Brunswick through the arts.”
Jack adds that the theater decided to apply to the National Endowment (NEA) for its “Our Town” community initiative program that according to NEA statements make “communities more livable with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, a distinct sense of place, and vibrant local economies that together capitalize on their existing assets.”
While the grant was turned down, Jack and others decided to continue and create an art work that projected on city walls photo images of people and quotes about their experiences of living and working in New Brunswick. That idea was followed by a theater piece that would reflect stories of people in the city. “But, after speaking with the New Brunswick Cultural Center, there seemed to be interest in potentially expanding the scope of the project to other arts and cultural organizations in the city. And here is where the collaborative power of the community took off,” says Jack.
“The tremendous good will and initiative from all of the partners has been amazing,” says Jack. “People really want to see this happen — and this process has opened up everyone involved to the unique identity and rich cultural and artistic offerings of the city. It is a true testament to the power of collective will that Hub City: Our Town is happening.”
To do so other city-based arts organizations are providing variations of the theme.
The Rutgers Film Co-Op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, for instance, focuses in on its town with the film event “Remembering Our Town: Films About New Brunswick,” Saturday, April 26, at 7 p.m., Voorhees Hall, Room 105, Rutgers University.
The program of films shot in and around New Brunswick was curated and produced by Albert Nigrin as part of the New Jersey Film Festival.
Included is Rutgers University student Jessica Dotson’s five-minute film “Reverse Serendipity,” an excerpt from a man’s life and why he goes to great lengths to do a good deed for another. The director will introduce the 2013 film.
Her film is followed by two shorts by New Jersey Film Festival director Nigrin: “Brainwashing,” his 1987 six-minute film shot almost exclusively inside a New Brunswick car wash and functioning “as a metaphor for the drowning of the soul,” and the 11-minute “Mental Radio” (1996) where a woman believes she has telepathic powers and sets out to test them (filmed against New Brunswick locales that have been torn down or re-developed, including Greasy Tony’s and the old Factory on Somerset Street).
Rounding out the evening are “New Brunswick, NJ — The State of Constant Flux,” area filmmaker Fritch Clark’s personal 15-minute film history of New Brunswick, and “George Tice: Seeing Beyond The Moment,” a 75-minute documentary on the celebrated photographer, chronicling his humble beginnings to acclaim as a recorder of New Jersey and American scenes — including those in the New Brunswick area. Filmmakers Peter Bosco (Connecticut), Bruce Wodder (High Bridge, NJ), and Douglas Underdahl (Long Valley, NJ) will be on hand to comment on their 2013 film.
The American Repertory Ballet will be represented with its presentation of choreographer Phillip Jerry’s dance adaptation of “Our Town” on Friday, May 2, at 7 p.m. at Crossroads Theater.
Created to a score by American composer Aaron Copland (who also created the music for the 1940 film adaptation of “Our Town”), the ballet, as dance critic Jennifer Dunning says, “develops slowly and is full of nuances of a sort not easily expressed in ballet. Mr. Jerry’s dance, dedicated to his mother, is filled with the spirit of the Thornton Wilder classic, but it also succeeds in dramatic and pure dance terms.”
Jerry performed with the Joffrey Ballet Company for 15 years before moving to Princeton, where he attended the university and served as ballet master for the American Repertory Ballet. At ARB he polished and completed the work that has become part of the company’s repertoire — and a Valentine to the idea of community.
While it seems that the entire city of New Brunswick is in on the celebration, it is important to recall that the play and its lesson are the things. As the Stage Manager says, “It ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
The play reminds us that it is, after all, about us and to celebrate the things that are important.
Our Town, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Tuesday, April 22, through Sunday, May 25. $20 to $61. George Street Playhouse Box Office, 732-246-7717, or www.GSPonline.org.
New Jersey Film Festival, Voorhees Hall 105, 71 Hamilton Street, Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Saturday, April 26, 7 p.m. $8 to $10. www.njfilmfest.com or 848-932-8482.
Our Town, American Repertory Ballet, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, Friday, May 2, 7 p.m. $20. 732-249-1254 or www.americanrepertoryballet.org.
New Brunswick: Our Town, New Brunswick Free Public Library, 60 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. The photo exhibition showcases the people and city of New Brunswick. Opens Thursday, April 26, 6 p.m. Free. 732-745-5108 or www.nbfpl.org.
More information on all of the above and more may be found by visiting www.NewBrunswick.com/OurTown.