Wilder classic ‘Our Town’ still resonates
Thornton Wilder once said, “I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions.” His most widely produced play, Our Town, aims to remind us of our universal humanity.
Sometimes, however, what some imagine to be folks-writ-large is merely the perspective of a specific group of people. Can Wilder’s fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire — set between 1901 and 1914, with its very specific landscape and history — speak to us in our more complicated time?
A daringly different play
When Our Town appeared on Broadway in 1938 to wide acclaim and won a Pulitzer, it broke accepted rules of theater with its bare stage: without scenery, curtain or props.
In the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production, which runs through June 11, Associate Artistic Director Alan Paul’s production maintains the bare-bones staging, which harmonizes with the industrial beauty of Sidney Harmon Hall.
Artistic Director Simon Godwin cast an all-local lineup of “hometown heroes,” whom audiences may recognize from other theater performances, as a “celebration of our creative community and its resilience,” he said.
One reason that the play continues to resonate is because of the Stage Manager, a character that was radical in 1938 and remains startlingly contemporary today. The Stage Manager, played here by Holly Twyford with shape-shifting virtuosity, moves between the play, actors and audience, between specific and universal.
Like a Greek chorus, she informs us that the play takes place in three acts. The first introduces the daily life of the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners and the childhood interactions of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. The second act covers George and Emily’s wedding. The third act is about mortality.
The Stage Manager brings comfort, calm, objectivity. Wilder has charged her with delivering facts about this specific town even as he wants to summon an everytown for the audience to reflect on their own specificity, their own origins.
At the same time, the Stage Manager does not to allow the audience to relax into the play. Because the lights in the theater never dim on the audience, we cannot forget we are watching something staged.
Each act has its purpose
In the first act, the Stage Manager tells us about the fate of several characters we’ve only just met, including Joe Crowell Jr. (Quinn M. Johnson), who bikes around the periphery of the stage delivering newspapers: smartest in high school, headed for great things after Massachusetts Tech, only to be cut down by World War I.
The Stage Manager also directs what we see and when. In one scene, Mrs. Webb (Felicia Curry) and Emily (Chinna Palmer) sit at the table as Emily declares her day’s triumphs and asks her mother’s advice. When the Stage Manager determines that the scene has delivered its required message, she stops the scene and shoos the characters, who once again become actors, off the stage.
Other than that of the Stage Manager, the dialogue in the first act is purposefully mundane. Plot is limited; conversation is civil, establishing refrains that will echo through the play.
Fathers are awkward. Mothers cook endlessly. The “all” can feel a little overly rosy, a bit confined. In this everyday routine, Rebecca Gibbs (Maisie Ann Posner) delights with grand gestures.
The wedding in Act II brings a more dramatic tone, with most characters on the edge of or in tears during the whole act, but it still rests intentionally on cliché.
Balancing old and new
There are moments that jar. Time and again, characters ask of the drunken, unhappy Mr. Stimson, “How’ll that end?” Duh. Their non-interventionist reaction to a neighbor’s distress seems specific to a culture and time, and might not be tolerable today.
In this diverse cast, the Webb family is played by Black actors. When Leslie Odom, Jr. played George Gibbs in a one-night benefit reading in 2013, he puzzled over how to bring his American experience to Our Town, eventually unearthing the play’s universal touchpoints.
Watching the Webbs, I wondered whether the audience might be missing out because the experience of a Black family in Grover’s Corners might add a dimension that Wilder could not envision.
Occasionally, the play spills off the stage, as when milkman Howie Newsome (Christopher Michael Richardson) encourages temperamental horse Bessie. Hardworking Dr. Gibbs (Todd Scofield) first enters the stage from the edge of the audience. From a circular staircase, George Gibbs (Jake Loewenthal), more a wide-eyed innocent than his love Emily, calls over to coax algebra tips from by-the-rules Emily on the opposite side of the stage.
Costume Designer Sarafina Bush dresses most characters in classic, contemporary clothing, with a rural nod in Howie’s overalls and a vintage shout-out in dresses for Rebecca and Emily.
Teenage Emily’s costume, a vintage-style top, jeggings and ankle boots that recall both the turn of the century and contemporary times, reflect her personality: smart, confident and outspoken, yet anxious to avoid disruption.
With costumes that only gently poke at the time period, again, characters lose their individuality and become manifestations of all of humanity.
The third act, which twists daily life into science fiction, is another big reason the play still works. Into the cemetery, where “an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down,” comes the newly dead Emily. Mother Gibbs (Natascia Diaz) coaches Emily in clarifying the eternal part of herself, but Chinna Palmer brings a heart-rending performance as Emily, bound still to her earthly home.
Emily demands to relive a day on earth: her 12th birthday, which becomes a little too real. In Acts I and II, Mrs. Webb mimed cooking breakfast over a stove. Now she rises in a transparent box through the stage. In this glass room, we see what Emily sees: wrapped presents, steam rising from scrambled eggs. The relentlessness of the everyday overwhelms Emily, who sees that what is precious is obscured.
Our Town is being performed at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington, DC. The show runs two hours and 40 minutes with two short intermissions of 15 and 10 minutes.
Refreshments can be pre-ordered until the show begins, and the concession stand closes after the first intermission. Open-captioned and audio-described performances will take place in early June.
Patrons must provide proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend any performance or public event at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Masks are required for all guests inside, except while eating or drinking in designated locations. For more information about proof of vaccination and rules for guests under the age of 12, visit shakespearetheatre.org/healthandsafety.
People 60 and over get a 10% discount on tickets and a 35% discount for Wednesday noon matinees. Call the box office at (202) 547-1122.