Our Town, NY

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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Our Town

By Thornton Wilder
Directed by David Cromer
Barrow Street Theatre
New York
Through Sept. 12, 2010

James McMenamin and Jennifer Grace in the Barrow Street Theatre production of “Our Town”
Photo by Carol Rosegg

David Cromer’s production of “Our Town” is proof that no text is beyond hope. Consigned to so many theatrical scrap-heaps of twee Americana, Thornton Wilder’s slice of small-town life at the turn of the
American century has been increasingly perceived as an irrelevance. Its close observation of the mores of Americans whose experience of life is distant from contemporary reality and whose moralities seem contrived to fit the fancies of 1938 has made it a darling for amateur dramatics but poison to the enlightened cognoscenti.

This is not entirely unfair. In hands interested only in mounting the show as a narrative, it stands inert as a museum piece: a diorama of quaint curiosities that have no value beyond diversion. David Cromer and his ensemble of actors have not let this happen. This production opens the text to inspection and reveals the powerful and profound humanity at the heart of Wilder’s analysis of what it really means to be alive in a place and at a time that defines how you see the world, regardless of what or when that time or that place happens to be.

Cromer revisits and revitalizes Wilder’s sense of the currents of humanity that shape common and disparate experiences. Its characters share time, but even in 1938, the audience was outside of that time and asked to look back at it–through what kind of filters depending on the degree to which the devil of detail took over the show. Cromer eschews period detail costume and set decoration, strips away the visual paraphernalia of nostalgia and focuses instead on raw action. His actors, under the puppet-master control of the Stage Manager (portrayed by rotating performers during the run, including Cromer in the last week), walk through the small theater space leading an invisible horse, delivering invisible milk, playing catch with an invisible baseball, performing routine household duties both robust (chopping, cooking) and intricate (sewing) only with dumbshow gesture. The details are not important as details in themselves. They matter only insofar as these are the activities of life that make up the living of life. What is important is the emotions in play, the dramatic conflicts and personal dilemmas that revolve around that which is routine, and with canny direction and focused performance, Wilder’s words become vivid and alive.

By the time the play reaches its devastating final act, Cromer has already drawn the audience into this world through tangible drama without ever relying on actual nostalgia. The stage space contains two tables and some chairs, with a balcony housing a piano above onto which slinks the chronically depressed choir master. His lurking presence is a constant throughout scenes otherwise depicting warmth and joy, and rather than walk on and walk off in a drunken ramble, he haunts the world of this play with a sense of despair and fatality that finally comes to fruition as the actors sit on simple chairs staring into space – this representing their graves and final resting place. Only here, with the arrival of Emily Webb and her desire to re-experience a happy day from her life, does the machinery of mimesis kick in. Michele Spadaro’s fully outfitted set depicting the Gibbs kitchen is revealed, and the heartbreaking encounter between metatheater and the audience’s sense of what constitutes traditional staging brings the production to a truly crushingly profound sense of exactly what Wilder’s script asks of us–to ponder the value of every moment lived in itself, of itself, and at the moment it is lived. It’s a humbling moment that’s too often easy to dismiss and to lose because the production has bathed too easily in the comfort of representative presentation. Cromer’s production is far from fringe, but it’s edgy enough to demand something of its audience, and the result is unmissable.

Harvey O’Brien

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