For me the shock of the new Our Town, off-Broadway, is not that David Cromer’s staging reinvents Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic, as reviewers last year in Chicago argued, but that it recalls, almost exactly, a concept I saw in a high-school production 30 years ago. Actors in contemporary garb perform on a central playing area surrounded by the audience; two tables, one symbolically light, one symbolically dark, are the sole furniture; the third act takes us back visually to the play’s stated time and place, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, between 1901 and 1913.
Wilder’s story of two families living next door to each other, the Gibbs and the Webbs, has been a staple of US high schools for generations. (Most of us have not only seen it but also been in it.) So it is not surprising that some clever high-school director would have beaten Cromer to the punch. What is genuinely alarming is that sophisticated big-city critics could think Cromer’s concept especially novel or daring.
Cromer is not claiming a wildly revisionist take; he is offering, with respect, the play. Rather literally so, since he assumes the part of the Stage Manager, the engaging, sometimes wry conjuror who takes us on the tour of Grover’s Corners, its history, geology and inhabitants. The joke in this essentially tragic tale is not just that Cromer is the best actor but also that, for the purposes of this staging, he has, in theatrical hierarchy, lowered himself from officer (director) to drill sergeant (stage manager).
The last major New York production of Our Town starred Paul Newman, whose silvery age imbued the third act – in which characters who have been buried in the town graveyard speak – with a special glow. The Newman production showcased beauty, which sometimes undercut the story’s rough-hewn ordinariness. It also featured the lovely Maggie Lacey in the juvenile female lead, Emily. Her performance was indelible, whereas Cromer lets his Emily, Jennifer Grace, belie her surname by overacting up a storm in act three.
If I found Cromer’s cast a little too deliberately amateurish, I credit him for allowing the work’s motifs to bloom. Those themes – the tragic velocity of life, the simultaneously mundane and magical nature of daily rituals, the elusiveness of experience – have lost little of their poignancy over the past 70 years. Our Town is a classic one imagines one has outgrown but somehow never does.
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