THORNTON WILDER'S OUR TOWN AT THE BARROW STREET THEATER
Last night I went back to see the current revival of Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN at the Barrow Street Theater in NYC. I wanted a chance to see it again before it closes in a couple of weeks, especially since David Cromer would be returning to reprise his role as the Stage Manager (last night was his first night back -- I missed him entirely the first time around).
This is as close to a perfect production of this play that any of us will ever see. I want everyone I know, and everyone I don't know, to go and see it. I wish I had millions of dollars so I could bankroll and extend the run indefinitely and buy every ticket to every performance and hand them out to random people on the street. This revival of this play should be subsidized by our government, and every high school kid in this city (and every other) should be able to go see it. If we had a national theater, in which great productions of great plays were kept in repertory for years, this OUR TOWN would have to be the first entry. It gives backbone to the endangered conviction that live theater, done well, not only still matters, but is crucial, vital, important, and necessary.
If you can, and even if you think you can't, go and see this while you still have the chance. Bring a friend. Bring three friends. It is one of those experiences in the theater you will never forget. Especially for those people who hate theater, who don't get it, or have stopped going because it's always so bad; or for those people who feel disconnected, cut-off, anxious, overworked, unmoored, hopeless --this play is for you.
Okay, now that I've shaken the trees, some particular thoughts I had while watching this OUR TOWN. First, I am reminded that OUR TOWN is The Great American Play. In my experience, ever since I first became aware of this play as a teenager, OUR TOWN has always been synonymous with cloying sentimentality, with white-bread, 'safe' entertainment, with being that play that every high school puts up a production of, because it\s so cute, easy, and will offend no one. Look up "bourgeois" in the dictionary and you're be sure to find a mention of OUR TOWN, that simple, boring play.
I have news for you: OUR TOWN is shocking. It's dark, full of despair, and longing, and deep, deep pathos. The list of virtues that make OUR TOWN so great is long, and includes the fine balance achieved of bottomless darkness and real humor and light; flawless construction; wonderful, simple, unpretentious language. But most of all what makes this play monumental, in its quiet, unassuming way, is the fact that what happens in it doesn't happen to the people on stage, per se...it happens to us. Watching the play performed, especially in this production, one is aware that what is happening onstage is a mirror. We see ourselves, we see our family, our friends, our enemies, our city, our country, our town.
The first time I saw this production, a year or so ago, it had been some time since I'd read or seen the play, and the first two acts made me shrug. What's the big deal?, I thought. Why is everyone talking about this production? It wasn't until the device used in Act Three (I won\'t give it away, but it's a brilliant theatrical stroke) that the play hit me, hard. I couldn't get up out of my seat afterward, and I saw others across from me in the 3/4 round setting that seemed to feel the same.
This time around, I found myself plunged into that well of emotion almost from the very beginning. Maybe it was Cromer's performance, which I'll get to in a minute. Maybe it was that I knew what was coming. If you don't know the play, stop reading here. What gripped me this time and kept me in a state of heightened emotional awareness throughout the first two acts was the sensation of watching the proceedings and experiencing everything on an entirely different level: this time, instead of watching exposition or character development, or the unfolding of a 'plot,' I was immediately and keenly aware of Wilder's thesis, that who we are, what we do, and feel, and think, how we communicate with one another -- the very world we live in -- is both intensely beautiful and utterly meaningless. Gone in the blink of an eye. Beyond our comprehension. Watching the small talk between family members and neighbors, seeing the evidence that Wilder so expertly lays before us was, this time, a profound experience for me. Because within the writing, there's no judgment. Somehow, Wilder achieves the trick of standing outside of humanity and rendering us back to ourselves without comment (until the end, that is, and even then judgment is debatable).
And isn't that what love is...unconditional acceptance? The knowledge that to judge, criticize or try to change someone else is none of our business? So what he does is that he shows us how much he loves humanity (us), foibles and eccentricities and even ignorance and all, and he lets us love ourselves. And then, in Act Three, he pulls the rug out from under us. It's almost a dirty trick, except that it's done so well, with such tenderness, that rather than feeling duped, we're in on it, we get it. The whole thing makes inevitable, terrible sense.
Cromer's direction is pitch perfect. He's found the exact right pace for the play. It flows effortlessly, evenly-calibrated throughout, with long, effective pauses at times, and overlapping choppy, hurried moments at others. He achieves balance. The performances he gets from the cast are uniformly right; no one stands out, no one steals the show, for the most part, it doesn't even seem like anyone is even acting (not in a stylized, Richard Maxwell-kind of way, just totally devoid of ego), which is just as it should be. Only in two brief instances of real onstage emotion (a scream from Emily, and a moment from Cromer) do we get jarring reminders that just beneath the surface of these pleasant, almost wry, proceedings, there is a current of raging darkness just barely being controlled. The choice to leave the house lights on throughout is another subtle, bold move that makes total sense. We all become part of the play. It feels great and also, at times, greatly uncomfortable.
As for Cromer's performance as The Stage Manager: what makes his much-ballyhooed nonchalantness so effective is not that he is devoid of emotion. He's not, and he only needs one moment of stark feeling in a two hour-plus performance to show us this is the case, when he slams a pair of boots down on a table to drive home a point. Cromer's putting on a master class in control. He has a serious job to do and he takes it seriously. Cromer's Stage Manager is like the kind doctor who matter-of-factly tells you that the condition you have is terminal. It's not that he doesn't care -- he does, greatly. But he needs to protect himself and us as well. We need his professional calm to anchor us, and he needs to stay detached to keep his sanity. If he got emotional about every patient (audience, us) he'd lose his marbles, because the reality is just too overwhelming.
I've spent some time putting these thoughts together because I feel it is my civic duty to urge you to go and see this play. Consider it an investment in your future. Go see it. Tonight. As the play itself seems to say: before it's too late.