James McMenamin as George and Jennifer Grace as Emily in Our Town. (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
NEW YORK Thornton Wilders "Our Town" is one of the wisest and most beautiful plays ever written by an American. A new production of the play that has been playing since last February off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre in Greenwich Village recently extended its run until January 2010.
David Cromer, an enterprising young actor-director from Chicago, who last season impressed New York theatergoers with his staging of a musical version of Elmer Rices expressionistic play "The Adding Machine," has rethought "Our Town," paring down to basics Mr. Wilders familiar story of Grovers Corners, N.H., circa 1901, and its various inhabitants.
Perhaps his biggest contribution is that he never allows the play to fall into the sentimental trap that has been the mischance of so many productions of "Our Town." That was the main fault of a 2002 Broadway revival that starred Paul Newman.
If anything, Mr. Cromers unsentimental approach gets to the truths of the play right from the get-go simply by allowing Mr. Wilders words to speak for themselves.
"Our Town," which opened on Broadway in 1938 and which brought Mr. Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize, was suggested by the poem "Lucinda Matlock" from the Midwestern poet Edgar Lee Masterss Spoon River Anthology, about life in another small town seen through its citizens epitaphs. Mr. Wilder even quotes lines from the poem in the second act.
The directions for Mr. Wilders original production of "Our Town" specified a bare stage and pointed out that no scenery was needed, just a few props and chairs. Mr. Cromer has found a way to one-up Wilders simplicity by having no stage at all; the audience is seated all over the theaters small auditorium and the action of the play takes place around them. A couple of chairs and tables serve as houses, the theaters balcony becomes the towns choir loft.
The program lists a costume designer Alison Siple but all the clothes look like they came from a yard sale. And, as for lighting, Mr. Cromer just leaves the theaters house lights on throughout the plays three acts. Mr. Cromers only scenic concession comes in Act Three when a character who has passed on is allowed to return to Grovers Corners and see how hurried and unseeing the folks on Earth are. Only in that one scene do we get to see the Technicolor beauty of Grovers Corners that the character left behind.
Besides his directing chores, Mr. Cromer also takes on the important role of the stage manager. He is the quietly wry commentator, a modest, unassuming fellow who delivers the plays wisdom, not with a put-on New England accent, but in a contemporary, flat Midwestern voice.
Walking through the audience, Mr. Cromer introduces the plays characters, Dr. Gibbs (Jeff Still) and his family, including his son George (James McMenamin); and, across the way, the Webbs (Ken Marks and Kati Brazda), including their two daughters Rebecca (Ronete Levenson) and Emily (Jennifer Grace).
Mr. Cromer also, from time to time, takes part in the plays action, as when George and Emily have the "very important talk at the soda fountain," in which they fumble toward an engagement. He does a fine job as the soda clerk, the proprietor of Grovers Corners drug store. He is shrewd enough to know that Emily has been crying, but wise enough not to make too much of it, and kind enough to trust the forgetful George to pay the price of two sodas "for 10 years, but not a moment longer."
He presents the first act, which deals with daily life in Grovers Corners; the second act, concerned with the humors and terrors of love and marriage; and the sober third act, in which the setting is the cemetery on a hill above town.
The play is moving because of the simplicity that Mr. Cromer emphasizes and charming because of Mr. Wilders humor. But the plays simplicity and humor are deceptive: "Our Town" brings up and considers with quiet courage the basic problems of life and death.
Although Mr. Cromers performance in the beginning seems a little distant rather than homespun, his performance warms up as the play goes forward and he brings enough solid strength to make the points Mr. Wilder had in mind. He catches and transmits the spirit of Wilders work through the plays large cast.
When asked what "Our Town" meant, Mr. Wilder always an-swered that its about the difficulty of "realizing life while you live it." In a recent interview, Mr. Cromer was asked basically the same question. He said that he felt Mr. Wilder wants us to appreciate the small things in life "like string beans."
Whatever message you take away from this new version, in the end you cannot help but be moved by Mr. Cromers 21st- century take on Mr. Wilder's masterly work.
The Barrow Street Theatre is at 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Avenue South. Tickets and information are available at (212) 858-4444 or www.ourtownoffbroadway.com.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.