Often when "Our Town" is performed it is bathed in a nostalgic glow - a Norman Rockwell painting come-to-life. This approach emphasizes the folksiness of Thornton Wilder’s drama, which is set a century ago in the small, imaginary New Hampshire community known as Grover’s Corners; and, on the surface, appears to be the accepted template for presenting this classic. This is the Americana that Mitt Romney longed for: a town of strong families, traditional values and an abiding sense of order. (Not that Barack Obama doesn’t extol these values, but that’s another story.)
Yet when watching David Cromer’s production, at the Roberts Studio Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion, it is apparent that there are cracks in that portrait.
Sure, the families are strong, but only because the women are pretty much kept in their place; a character’s alcoholism is gossiped about, but there is no intervention; and this seeming order is arbitrary, easily upset by a random illness or accident. By using a docudrama approach to create an overview of this community, Wilder suggests that these social constructs are just that - ways to cope in an unforgiving universe.
And in Cromer’s rigorous approach, we are all citizens of Grover’s Corners. The configuration of this studio theater has the audience sitting on three sides of the performance area - a narrow rectangle in which there is a few bits of scenery. The effect is cramped and intimate. And with a first act (called "Daily Life") performed under the glare of dozens of spotlights and a cast dressed in contemporary clothes, the line between actor and audience disappears.
Don’t be surprised if an actor strolls in front of you walking his horse or Cromer asks you to read a question addressed to one of the "experts" brought on to offer the backstory of this town. We are immersed in this community.
Wilder divides the story into three, short acts, set at the cusp of the last century over a 12-year span, before the advent of the automobile. In it the day-to-day actions of the community are seen, focusing on two families: the Webbs and the Gibbs, who live side-by-side. Frank Gibbs is the town doctor, Charles Webb edits the local newspaper; their wives (Julia and Myrtle) attend to the household (this is 1901), while the children - two in each family - go to school. The older children - George Gibbs and Emily Webb - are childhood sweethearts that marry in the second act (called "Love and Marriage").
By the third act, which moves the action to 1913, Emily dies and is buried in the town cemetery where she is reunited with those that passed before her (including her mother-in-law and younger brother) who converse with her with sardonic candor. Don’t the living know that the dead have moved on; observing, but not much caring about the living?
"Our Town" is famous for its bare-boned presentation (no sets, few props), which was downright radical when the play was first produced in 1938; but Cromer takes it one step further - breaking down the fourth wall. At first this is off-putting: you want some distance between yourself and the actors: costumes that might help delineate the time and space, not off-the-rack clothes from Old Navy. And you want darkness, so you won’t continue to focus on the cute guy in the second aisle across the way. It’s easy to be distracted when the normal rules aren’t in place.
But that may just be the point. Wilder’s play is a study of how we don’t pay attention to what’s around us - how we live our lives in distraction, and that the world moves forward relentlessly, cruelly.
By stripping the play of sentimentality and any regional touches (you won’t hear any characters say ey-yah or any similar colloquialisms), Cromer gets to the heart of Wilder’s vision of a community’s place in the cosmos. The poignancy of the final scene - where life and death intermingle in a bit of magic realism - is earned, not simply programmed by the plot’s melodramatic turn. In this production it’s an extraordinary moment, realized by an unexpected theatrical gesture that you think Wilder might have happily approved.
Cromer first staged this version in Chicago in 2008, bringing it off-Broadway in 2010, where it ran for 644 performances, which made for the play’s longest run in New York City. The production had a bit of a novelty quality - not only in the staging, but with name actors such as Helen Hunt brought in to play the Stage Manager. For the Boston production, Cromer repeats the central role he played in Chicago and New York. His is a no-nonsense approach: this isn’t the avuncular approach usually seen that has become the standard with which the role is done, instead he’s more matter-of-fact - moving the play forward in a brusque, unaffected manner.
There’s a leanness to the other performances as well, and a very strong sense of modernity, most notably Melinda Lopez as Julia Gibbs, who in a world-weary look suggests the deep-rooted frustrations at a life not fully lived. Derrick Trumbly brings a conflicted sweetness to George’s young adulthood; and Therese Plaehn is wonderfully touching as the doomed Emily. The actors (mostly local) are comfortable with the intimacy and the "less is more" approach that Cromer has with the text.
If there’s a problem, it comes with the spatial arrangement, specifically one crucial scene: the depiction of a choir rehearsal presided over by an inebriated musical director - that transpires on a stage on the second level. It is simply too remote and the character’s suffering not fully realized. The best place to watch this evocative production may be from the other side of that balcony - a single row of seats that offer a view that suggests "the eye of God" - a description that Wilder gives as the place where Grover’s Corners is located.
Lastly, watching the families gather in Newtown, Connecticut last night holding umbrellas in the rain immediately brought to mind this play’s final scene. Inevitably, this production’s remaining performances will be viewed through the tragic events of this past Friday. Horror came to that town - an archetypical New England village not unlike the one that Wilder imagined some miles northeast; and those events resonate in this deceiving simple play. In the next few weeks, it may be the most relevant and deeply moving play you may ever see.
"Our Town" continues through Jan. 20, 2013 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, http://www.huntingtontheatre.org:the Huntington Theatre webpage.