Thursday, January 21, 2010

David Cromer's Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre

Our Town. A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder. At the Barrow Street Theatre, NYC. January 2010

It took me several days to write a word about this production. What could I say? I’d never been drawn to the play. Perhaps that first read in high school ruined it for me; perhaps it had seemed too sentimental for a high school girl in the early Seventies. I really don’t recall.

Time goes by. Last week I was so enthralled with the production Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre that I could not wait until the weekend trip to my storage unit to drag out my copy of the play – I bought a new one at the box office (with a terrific intro by Donald Margulies and Afterword by Tappen Wilder), which was fun reading for several commutes ­ my first re-read after several decades. I feel rather like I did a few years after my cousin gave me my first Billie Holiday album – as a teenager, I had not appreciated it, but later, listening to it in my twenties, Billie finally got me. Or, more accurately, I finally heard her. When I was forced to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in that summer between junior and senior high school, I hated it. Years later in college, I re-read it of my own volition, and finally got it.

How did I not get the allure of this play before? I’m just a tad slow, I suppose. Sometimes by five years, sometimes ten. Sometimes by decades. At the Barrow Street Theatre, I finally heard Our Town.

The production at the Barrow Street Theatre burned away all memories and assumptions of the play and left me with this distilled story and theme that I hadn’t recognized before. I think Thornton Wilder would concur, this was a definitive production. The simplicity of the Stage Manager’s direct addresses to the audience set the tone of an anti-maudlin evening.

David Cromer directed this production to be, well, direct. Crisp and clear as an autumn morning, Stephen Kunken’s Stage Manager followed in the director’s footsteps. Cromer, like Wilder before him, had played the Stage Manager earlier in this production. There is nothing folksy about this Stage Manager, or about the other characters in Grover’s Corners. These are people going about their days; days like and utterly unlike our own. The characters are clearly drawn, angular and shaded, first by Mr. Wilder and now by this exemplary cast.

Allow me to set the scene as Mr. Cromer did. The stage is the floor surrounded by audience on three sides. The fourth side is covered by a heavy black curtain, over which is a balcony containing the Congregational Church choir loft, including piano. The entire space is used: Actors enter from three corners and a staircase, and traverse all parts of the space except for those chairs in which audience members are seated. A row of chairs is on the left and right side of the acting area, then an aisle separates them from the house left and house right audience sections. In the “acting area” are two kitchen tables surrounded by requisite chairs. The aisles are the streets and gardens of Grover’s Corners, so we first meet milkman Howie Newsome (Robert Beitzel) leading his cantankerous horse, Bessie, right through the audience. At what would be, in another staging, the “front” or “downstage” of the acting area, another aisle connects the roads of the town and separates the central audience area from the acting area. The lights don’t really go down – sometimes they’re dimmer than others, depending on the time of day in the story. The Stage Manager begins the production by holding up, not a pocket watch, but a cell phone. (He does not need to say, Shut yours, and pay attention to the time!) This production is in full ¾ staging. There is no attempt to “act” in any direction. These actors, these people are just living their lives engaged in quotidian tasks and conversations which occupy them entirely. We are eavesdropping, invisible to them. This makes the play even more intimate than the script already is.

Emily Webb is a difficult character to play – we see her as a child, a teenager, a bride, and a grown woman with a child of her own. Jennifer Grace’s Emily was unlike any I’ve seen, and I was delighted with her. This Emily is not cute, not tender, or sentimental; she’s downright angry at her confusion and her feelings and fears, as they come upon her during the first two acts. Ms. Grace is alive on stage, living Emily’s life. James McMenamin’s George is rather dense, much softer than his beloved Emily, and totally sincere. The mothers– I would say the “heart” of the play if only the fathers weren’t as soulful as their wives – are Mrs. Gibbs (wife of Doc Gibbs and mother of George) and Mrs. Webb (wife of editor Webb and mother of Emily). These are the women Thornton Wilder loves, the women even homicidal “Uncle Charlie” of Wilder’s screenplay for Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” admires – “Women keep busy in towns like this,” Uncle Charlie says. From the moment they rise, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibb are working, cooking, feeding chickens and tending the garden and the children, caring for their husbands, looking out for one another. As typical a kitchen scene as two women talking while they string beans is, when Lori Myers (Mrs. G) and Kati Brazda (Mrs. W) did it, I believed it.

The fathers seemed wise and just. Emily says to George that she expects men to be perfect ­ after all, his father is perfect! Doc Gibbs, as played by Ben Livingston, would appear perfect to Emily. Of course he’s not. He’s jealous of his wife’s innocent time out of their house. Doc Gibbs may not deem that a problem, but all women do! And Editor Webb (Davis Manis), perspicacious and insightful, while he seems a fair and honest editor, is less than probing. Probing might be impolite.

This production gave us exactly what the Stage Manager promises when he plans to place the script in a time capsule in the cornerstone of the new bank being built in town. This was a detailed picture of the daily life in the northeast of the United States in the beginning of the 20th century. Our town (that is, Grover’s Corners) is one of those towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and yet there was a kindness and tolerance in enough of the townspeople to keep that from being a frightening prospect. Even Simon Stimson, the organist at the Congregational Church, also the town drunk, is accepted, tolerated by the majority ­ Stimson was played by Daniel Marcus, who needn’t speak to bring us inside his personal hell. Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, and Mrs. Soames (Susan Bennett) discuss him after choir practice, but two of the three don’t condemn him for his blatantly drunken behavior. Later Mr. Webb and the town Constable (George Demas) treat him with a careful respect, saying only that he’d had “a peck of trouble.” The details of this man’s life were known to all, and they were bad enough to force a stream of painful bile to spew from Stimson in Act 3. The Constable is the kindly town policeman Mr. Wilder repeated in the screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt, although there as a city policeman who knew everyone by name. Different clothes, different place, largely the same guy.

What is fascinating about this production is that Cromer realized that Daily Life continued whether the characters had lines in the script or not, so Simon Stimson spends a good deal of time in that choir left, occasionally playing the piano, mostly just drinking. He almost looms over the town – especially interesting after Editor Webb stated that there wasn’t much in the way of drinking in town. He didn’t mention what we came to see was a clear exception. Throughout the play Mr. Wilder shows us ourselves, and then, in the third act, the Stage Manager explains the human race: "Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense….”

I want everyone in our town to see this production of Our Town for themselves, so I cannot, would not tell you the fine bit-o’-theatre that shocked me into tears in the last ten minutes of the play. Act 3 is the end of life as well as the play –first act, daily life; second act, love and marriage. Third act, as the Stage Manager says, you can guess.

David Cromer’s production of Our Town has done it for me. I get it now. There is so much LIFE in Our Town, but the main question raised by Emily is this: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute?

Such simple, straightforward, punch-me-in-the-heart drama cannot be accomplished without a group in great accord with one another and their joint intent. David Cromer assembled a marvelous cast and worked with remarkably subtle designers: ­ Scenic design Michele Spadaro, Lighting design Heather Gilbert, Costume Design Alison Siple, and Musical Director Jonathan Mastro ­ to create an unforgettable Our Town.

In this remarkable revival, David Cromer brings Our Town back to life in the truest sense. Go while it’s here for you in living, if muted, color. This wonderful company plays it out for you each night at the Barrow Street Theatre.

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