If you have ever loved “Our Town” (and who hasn’t?), be prepared to fall in love all over again. Huntington Theater Company’s holiday gift is a stunning re-imagining of Thornton Wilder’s groundbreaking play. This January 25th will be the 75th anniversary of the out-of-town pre-Broadway tryout opening of “Our Town” at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, which went on to win Wilder his second of three Pulitzer Prizes, becoming a perennial classic and perhaps the most beloved American work for many a theatergoer, including this critic. Thus it was a courageous risk for Director David Cromer to revive it off-Broadway in 2009 with a startlingly different approach. That production not only ran for over six hundred performances (its longest run ever), it won an Obie for Best Direction by Cromer, as well as Lucille Lortel awards for Best Revival and Direction. It was generally regarded as a truly revolutionary re-thinking of an extraordinary play. In its original production, it was acclaimed for its return to the basics of drama, with virtually no scenery and few props to distract from the fundamental issues on view; Wilder felt that “the spectator restages it inside his own head”, and that he could more effectively present “the life of a village vs. the life of the stars”. By setting this iteration in about the smallest venue imaginable, with the audience on three sides of the playing space, with action that takes place all around them, the creators of this version have made the audience a real part of the story, with the emphasis on that word “imaginable”.
In this production, which preserves the three-act structure of the play as originally written, the cast consists of thirty-two actors, twenty-nine of whom are local performers. In the original, Wilder himself played the part of the narrator (Stage Manager) for a few weeks of its Broadway run; in this version, Cromer repeats that feat (until December 30th). Also repeating their contributions from the 2009 production are the technical crew of Scenic Designer Stephen Dobay, Costume Designer Alison Siple, and Lighting Designer Heather Gilbert. It remains the deceptively simple story of 1901 Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire (“just across the Massachusetts line”), and what happens between and among its residents, primarily next-door neighbors and sweethearts George Gibbs (Derrick Trumbly) and Emily Webb (Therese Plaehn), both totally natural and believable. Also featured in prominent roles are Mrs. Gibbs (Melinda Lopez) and Dr. Gibbs (Craig Mathers) and their other child Rebecca (Emily Skeggs), Mr. Webb (Christopher Tarjan) and Mrs. Webb (Stacy Fischer), and the Choirmaster Simon Stimson (Nael Nacer). There isn’t a clinker in the bunch. Other townfolk include Mrs. Soames (Marianna Bassham), Joe Stoddard (Dale Place), Professor Willard (Richard Arum), Sam Craig (Nicholas Carter), Constable Warren (Paul D. Farwell), Farmer McCarty (Douglas Griffin), Irma (Kathryn Lynch), Joe Crowell, Jr. (Jay Ben Markson), Howie Newsome (Alex Pollock), Wally Webb (Eliott Purcell), and Si Crowell (Ryan Wenke). It’s hard to picture a better cast or a more effective fresh approach to what might be considered an old chestnut; they prove you can indeed go home again, and rediscover what we all might’ve taken too much for granted. It’s a revelation.
Wilder stated that his play was “not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village, or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death”, but “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life”, having “set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place”. In the end, he believed that “each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner” and that “our claim, our hope, our despair, are in the mind…not in things, not in ‘scenery’.” Cromer respects this view, although he jolts us with a third-act surprise that’s unforgettable. While honoring the source material, he manages, in his complex performance and his pitch-perfect direction, to reveal not only the sentimental side of the work but also its darker one, its personal impact as well as its universality.
The struggle between the commonplace and the universal dimensions of human experience is perhaps best expressed in the mini-logue of George’s younger sister Rebecca at the end of the first act when she refers to a letter send to her friend from her pastor: “On the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America…Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God”….“and the postman brought it just the same”. Right on. Or, perhaps, Amen.