Theatrical Outfit revisits Our Town with a strong cast, but a production that forgets that less is more
by Andrew Alexander
September 3, 2019
Image: The ensemble cast of Theatrical Outfit’s Our Town
At the end of Act 1, the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town symbolically places an imaginary copy of the script itself into the cornerstone of a new building, saying, “People a thousand years from now—This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
In hindsight, it hardly seems necessary. Eighty plus years since its premiere, you couldn’t throw an imaginary, invisible stone without hitting a production of Our Town. Its use of a bare stage; its large ensemble cast; its accessible, heartfelt emotions; and its reassuring avowal of the goodness of everyday people make it especially tempting for schools and community theaters. Everyone gets a role, nothing has to be built, and no one goes home offended. When the rights were first released to amateur theaters in 1939, there were 639 productions within the first 20 months: I’m guessing after that, they lost count. People of the future won’t have to dig up a copy of a script from a time capsule to know what life was like “in the provinces north of New York” a thousand years earlier; they’ll recall acting it out in high school. Like it or not, Grover’s Corners is–and seemingly always will be–our town.
Theatrical Outfit opens its season with the challenging task of dusting off the familiar classic and attempting to breathe new life into it. Director David Crowe sets out with a strong cast, and the results are lively and appealing. The show has also been thought-provokingly paired in rep with Moisés Kaufman’s 2000 play, The Laramie Project, which takes a similarly many-peopled, broad view of the “our town” of Laramie, Wyoming, shortly after the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Wilder’s script actually has as much affinity with Pirandello, Kafka, and Beckett as it does with Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost. In spite of its homespun qualities, the playwright was influenced by the European avant-garde, successfully mixing together elements that wouldn’t otherwise seemingly meld with much success. Alongside the ice cream sodas, the young love, the chatty milkman, and the baseball games on Main Street, there are the rather radical theatrical techniques of a bare stage, the breaking of the fourth wall, self-reflexive references to the play itself, direct address to the audience, and broad conceptual shifts in space and time.
Perhaps to clearly demarcate itself from lightweight productions, Theatrical Outfit gussies things up with an elaborate set, projections, beautiful lighting, incidental music, meticulous period costumes, the works. For all of that, the most effective performance comes from Mary Lynn Owen as the Stage Manager, who wears street clothes. Her plain-spoken directness and her seeming belief in Wilder’s admonitions to appreciate life while we have it come across powerfully; she often seems so straight-forward, present, genuine, and heartfelt, it’s hard to label her performance as “acting” exactly.
But the production’s more elaborate elements in other realms add clutter where there should be sparseness. One of the things that gives Our Town its intriguing touch of modernity is the spaciousness created by its transparency. Grover’s Corners isn’t memorable because of a particular set, or even because of the actors pretending to walk around the town on stage, but through a live collaboration, by the audience’s filling in the imaginative gaps. The scrims, costumes, projections, and music rather emphasize the play’s goopy nostalgic haze. In the end, the additions serve as reminders of how powerful extraction can be, and how important it is to this play’s success.
The pairing of Our Town with The Laramie Project with the same ensemble cast is a thought-provoking, powerful, and original choice, but the productions premiere weeks apart: Our Town opened at the end of August and Laramie premieres September 13. Some of the density and concision of the statement is lost for those who see the plays so far apart, or miss the fact that they’re even running together.
Still, the strong cast brings out some fascinating aspects of the play. Jayson Warner Smith creates a beautifully vivid Mr. Webb: the character pops authentically to life in every scene (Wilder’s own father, like Webb, was a newspaperman, and the writer’s rich sympathy here, and indeed across the whole population, seems profound. We may grow a little cynical about the goings on in Grover’s Corners, but Wilder never does). Shaun MacLean and Maggie Birgel as the boy-and-girl-next-door George and Emily give the pre-wedding jitters scene an interesting edge of true existential dread. Especially resonant here is the normally peripheral role of the outsider, the choirmaster, given a palpable and convincing sense of despair in just a few lines by Michael Hanson in a notably strong performance. And Asia Howard provides some gorgeous comic moments as an otherwise anonymous woman who loves weddings, even as she understands well the unhappiness they can often bring.
Some may find another visit to Grover’s Corners too sentimental, saccharine, and predictable, with the carpe diem thematic destination too preachy and pat. But very much to the cast’s and Wilder’s enduring credit (and very much to my surprise), our tour through town–even when observing the most ordinary aspects of daily life –is never dull, and it has touches of transcendence. Against the odds, Our Town is still kicking. It’s probably why this town will still continue to resonate, even in a thousand years.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and founder of The Alexander Report.
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