This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Fourth of July is usually not a good weekend for on stage drama — bright beaches, warm sun and evening fireworks generally trump dark theaters; but if the weather is bad and one had to spend part of the weekend inside, there's no better way to do it than watching Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
Our Town is one of those works, like Grant Wood's American Gothic or Mark Twain's Huck Finn, that feel like they were given to the American people by the Founding Fathers. They seem to have always been with us, and like other institutions — like say an independent judiciary or the right to vote — we often overlook what makes them so special.
There is a great deal more that makes Our Town special, but its most famous feature is its reputation of being foolproof. And in some ways this is true, which is why it's such a staple of community and high school theater. Wilder's 1938 play is so simple, so direct — it requires little stagecraft and its characters, so ordinary, so familiar, would also seem to require very little acting.
The problem is that it's not exactly true; and since most everyone has seen or read Our Town in school, daring directors tend to avoid it. Most professional productions have a sort of grandness that make seeing it feel like attending a Fourth of July parade — enjoyable as ritual or harmless civic duty, but not as provocative theater.
This was the case with the last Broadway production, starring the late Paul Newman as the stage manager (which until recently I assumed would be the definitive Our Town of my theater-going life). Newman's presence was so smooth, so coolly unassuming as he introduced us to Grover's Corner and walked us through the milestones of American life, it felt as if the gray icon was making up the folksy dialogue on the spot. The production was full-blown with period details: boater hats, long conservative dresses — if there wasn't red while and blue bunting everywhere, it felt as if there were.
Because of the authority of that production, I wasn't expecting much from this summer's two new stagings of Our Town. The first is playing in Culver City courtesy of The Actors' Gang. Directed by Justin Szebe, this staging has all the similar trappings of traditional Our Towns: an avuncular Stage Manager, old-tyme costumes plus a red curtain and shell footlights that call to mind an old theater from the Orpheum Circuit. But, as expected from the Actors' Gang, there are subversive quirks. Some work: like the rope acrobatics and Chris Schultz's performance as George. Instead of an All-American, he's played like a brooding Tim Burton-esque oddball. Other quirks distract: like the choice to play much of Wilder's earnestness for laughs — for example, the farmer says it isn't going to rain, cue a thunder effect. Yuk, yuk. Luckily, as the play progresses, the gags recede and the performance still manages to be touching. It's not an Our Town for the ages, but it does convey Wilder's emotions with panache.
It also lasts almost an entire hour longer than David Cromer's current Off-Broadway production that has now replaced that 2002 Paul Newman staging as the Our Town that will linger in my mind. Director Cromer, who also plays the Stage Manager, is the exact opposite of Newman, he's curt and unsentimental. Instead of sounding like he's improvising his patter on the spot, it seems like he's reciting a set of warnings and instructions from a clipboard, like a flight attendant before take off. His staging is bare bones and the costumes modern dress — the performance often feels as if it's being performed by members of the audience. That is Cromer's point — and it works beautifully. Wilder's play is timeless because its strips life and drama down to its elements, Cromer's staging does the same—which is why it too feels timeless.
David Cromer's production of Our Town continues Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater; The Actors' Gang Our Town runs at the Ivy Substation in Culver City through July 11.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Image of Paul Newman by Joan Marcus, image of David Cromer by Carol Rosegg, banner image and all others by Jean-Louis_Darville