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Our Town Is More Than Ever: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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Will Rogers, Emma Rosenthal in Our Town at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Will Rogers, Emma Rosenthal in Our Town at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Our Town
by Thornton Wilder

Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 28 – August 8
Directed by Nicholas Martin

Scenic Design by David Korins
Costume Design by Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner
Sound Design by Drew Levy

Cast:

Becky Ann Baker
Dylan Baker
Kevin Cahoon
Nancy E. Carroll
Sam Crane
Jeff Cuttler
Zackary Grady
Jessica Hecht
Brie Larson
Adam Lerman
Brian Lewis
Bryce Pinkham
Gayle Rankin
Will Rogers
Emma Rosenthal
Graham Rowat
John Rubinstein
Campbell Scott
Jon Patrick Walker

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town lives and breathes and gently enlarges how we see ourselves way beyond the confines of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire or small town Americathanks to the current production at the Williamstown Theater Festival directed by Nicholas Martin. Martin has staged it exactly as it was written and first produced in 1938 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton and a month later on Broadway. The text is verbatim and the notes for no sceneryonly wooden straight-backed chairs (quite an enormous number here hang off the backdrop), two round wooden tables and no propsare followed to a T.

The cast is anchored by Campbell Scott as the Stage Manager and an accent-perfect group of seasoned performers (Jessica Hecht, John Rubinstein, Dylan Baker, Becky Ann Baker, Will Rogers, Brie Larson and many more) and townspeople, old and young, from Williamstown and environs. The actors’ blocking flows like a dance around each other and is periodically interrupted by the Stage Manager who directs them to another part of the story, giving the play a syncopated rhythm, and a prod to the players to take an extra breath and to the audience to watch more closely. The repeated lighting of sunrise and evening and interior spots on performers’ eyes during key moments reinforce to a startling degree each character’s external world and internal world.

The play takes place between 1901 and 1913 and centers around the Gibbs family and the Webb family. The action moves along, occasionally going back in time, and scenes overlap and cross into each household simultaneously. These are Wilder’s devices to bridge the gap between players and audience; the audience, he is saying, is also familiar with the town and its history and some of what lies ahead. We know when Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs will die early in Act Ias the Stage Manager points to their graves in the town cemetery as part of his geographical tour of Grover’s Corners.

Each character’s gestures are repeated and clearMr. Newsome, the milkman, prodding his horse (with neighing coming from the Stage Manager) and Mrs. Gibbs setting the breakfast table for each of her children in Act I and then with slightly greater emphasis (as we watch to see if there is any variation) recreate the same gestures in Act III. The audience is engaged not just by what the characters say but by learning the characters’ everyday behavior in pantomime. As radio listeners, many in the 1930s audience were familiar with imagining how characters looked and acted, set the table and brought in the milk.

I imagine for those seeing Our Town for the first time, Wilder’s staging may produce some questions. Was he a minimalist before his time? Was the play’s nuts and bolts look at the verities of life and death a radical switch for American drama? Was he being overly romantic or sentimental by stripping out so muchveering close to some of Norman Rockwell’s stereotypic take on America?

The play has elements of all of the above as well as reference to the sparse stages and audience awareness in Shakespeare plays and Greek drama. Wilder’s one-acts, all wry and core slices of life, are also stripped down, Our Town being the most successful in its range (three acts: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Final Days). In his journals, Wilder writes of his despair that the living room locale common to the theater of the ‘30s (the 1930s sit-com approach) was reducing theater to “a minor art and an inconsequential diversion.” His staging was purposely intended to convey “not verisimilitude but reality.”

Wilder (1897-1975) was a scholar and a peripatetic observer who spoke four languages. He was born in Wisconsin and spent his youth in China and Hong Kong where his father was a consul. He lectured and wrote during most of his life in many of the centers of the American intelligentsia. In addition to plays, which are now collected in one volume in the Library of America series, he wrote seven novels including The Eighth Day, one not well known and one of my favorites, as well as one of his Pulitzer’s, The Bridge at San Luis Rey.

Wilder mostly through the Stage Manager slides in life’s milestones, reminding us of our own pasts and futuresour sadness, our settledness, our disappointments, our blindness, our hopesand yet tells us that there is “something eternal” in each of us, in language that never feels trite, particularly in this production. While many will say that times are different now, more complex, more inclusive, harder, the biological time line does not change. For many in the audience, of an age that wasn’t so far away from the time of the play, including this viewer, seeing this production of Our Town was like seeing the play for the first time.

Through July 28, 2010
Williamstown Theater Festival
Box Office: 413-597-3400

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