The audience is integrated into the action in Chicago-based director David Croner’s staging of Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town.” At one point, some are asked to be participants. The space at the Barrow Street Theater has been redesigned for the audience to sit on three sides of the playing area. A passage is created for the actors to move between the first row of seats on the stage level and the three rows of stadium seating. This not only creates a sense of intimacy but removes the feeling of them and us. Advance word was that Croner, who helmed the successful award-winning musical “Adding Machine” (produced Off Broadway last season), had another winner. He may have.
While Croner has directed and re-imagined the play in contemporary terms, he also plays the role of the stage manager. He enters in a sport shirt and jeans carrying a cell phone, a director’s yellow pad with a pencil behind his ear. One can see that this production with its large cast dressed in low-end casual is not going to be a carbon copy of past productions.
One generally expects that any production of “Our Town” will adhere to certain givens: no scenery, a few props but costumes that suggest small-town New England Americana at the turn-of-the-20th-century. Not quite. But it isn’t until the third act that Croner presents his coup de theatre. It’s a stunner and it validates what we may have previously perceived as incongruities. You could say that “Our Town,” which has just passed the play’s 70th birthday since its 1938 world premiere at McCarter Theater in Princeton (and its subsequent move to Broadway), was due for a new approach.
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 and plunk 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, 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.
Audiences have thanked Wilder for more than 70 years for reminding them that less is more. The prescribed minimalism is addressed by set designer Michele Spadaro as the audience sees only two small square wooden tables and four chairs as it enters the space. The house lights remain on until late in the play. It’s the unsparing simplicity that grounds the play. 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. If director Cromer might be faulted for taking a somewhat 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. Jennifer Grace, as Emily, has an appealing naturalness that works beautifully as a catalyst for George’s romantic interest. As George, James McMenamin may be working his wholesomeness to excess, but he is convincing.
The sentimental portions of the play are balanced with humorous bits: Wilbur Edwin Henry’s unintentionally funny lecture, as Professor Willard, on the geological history of Grover’s Corners and the choir rehearsal (as staged in a raised loft). The latter, presided over by Jonathan Mastro as Simon Stimson, the church’s music maestro and suicidal town drunk, gets its quotient of laughs.
The soul of Grover’s Corners is George’s parents, Dr. Gibbs (Jeff Still) and Mrs. Gibbs (Lori Myers) and Emily’s parents, editor Webb (Ken Marks) and Mrs. Webb (Kati Brazda). Brazda was especially affecting as the undemanding and attentive and occasionally preoccupied Mrs. Webb.
Time goes by so quickly that we need a Stage Manager. There is no attempt, however, by Croner to affect the resonance of an all-knowing New Englander who talks to both the townsfolk and the audience. He rather simply sets the stage and guides us with a wisely informed nonchalance through the joys and sorrows that tie a town.
The late Paul Newman played the Stage Manager with a decidedly more New England flavor in the last Broadway revival in 2002. Newman’s approach does not take anything away from Croner’s uniquely conceived invitation to Grover’s Corners. Considering the disastrous turn the economy has taken, it might be well for parents to remind their children, as we are reminded in the play, that living and loving are all that really matters the short time we are here.
The other notable New York productions of “Our Town” include: the original 1938 production in which Frank Craven played the Stage Manager (as well as in the 1940 film version that featured William Holden as George); the 1944 revival at the City Center in which Montgomery Clift played George; the 1969 Broadway revival with Henry Fonda as the Stage Manager; and the 1988 Lincoln Center revival with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager. ***
“Our Town,” Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street (at Seventh Avenue South. $40 and $69. 212-868-4444.