This play is called Our Town: 75 years in Grover’s Corners (part III of III)

Jan 30, 2013   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook

No curtain. No scenery.

Wilder wrote that he was trying to restore significance to the small details of life by stripping away the scenery, “Theatre longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves.”  Elsewhere, he observed, “Moliere said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two.  The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

In terms of design, Yew opted for tables and chairs only, no treliises; he staged the church choir on the balcony of the outdoor Elizabethan Stage at OSF.  Yew’s spare production began in daylight and ended under the stars each evening, using lighting to carve the otherwise empty space.

Michael Kahn likewise adhered to the letter of Wilder’s stage direction indoors at Stratford, CT:  “All the sound effects were live, onstage by the actors. It was all shown to the audience.  We had a very big bare stage at Stratford.”

At Delaware, Fontaine Syer had neither scenery nor curtain, and her actors also generated essential sound effects onstage:  ”The one indulgence was a full-stage star curtain in the back. We used the star curtain a tiny bit at end of 1st act, just o-so-faint, and then, we used it again in the graveyard, at the end, when the Stage Manager is talking about ‘every 16 hours,’ and it was pretty gorgeous.”  Syer cautions that one must use a star curtain judiciously, “You don’t want to shoot your wad.”  One small wonder to savor: Tappan Wilder, executor of Thornton’s estate and witness to countless productions of Our Town, came to closing night and happened to get seated next to Ms. Syer, “As the faint stars came up behind the choir practice, I heard him say, ‘Wow.’”

While it wasn’t part of her original production design, following the September 11th attacks, she invited the community onto the stage.  Her designer had wanted two semi-circular rows of chairs arcing along the back wall of the oval stage at Delaware Theatre Company; the acting company was going to be onstage all the time and come forward as the play required.  “I went at it believing that we were going to be giving something to the community by inviting these people to participate, to remind us that we live and die together in a community, but what the volunteers brought to this production, the expansion of energies and sensibilities, the expansion of the scope of the play, because you cannot have ten extra people in the graveyard who don’t speak, no one can afford it.” Like Yew at Oregon, but for different reasons, Syer discovered, “ It made the play so powerful, so communicative, especially in Act III and in the choir practice. You had a sense of the people in the town. More depth of field.  It was kind of a karmic lesson.”

Chastising James Naughton’s 2002 production, designed by Tony Walton, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “once you start to gild the austere lily that is Our Town, you’ve upset an essential balance.”  Speaking privately, Peter Marks concurred, “Naughton made a mistake in visual elements; he gussied it up.” But of the Broadway revival’s trompe l’oeil radiators and artfully arranged sandbags, Naugton told me, “We (Tony Walton and I) tried to do what Wilder wanted for the play but we also tried to — we want to be true to the intention, but I didn’t see why we couldn’t emphasize the theatricality, all the implements, the stage stuff.  I didn’t mean to show it off, but it lends itself to the subject matter, which is beautiful yet stark.  We took a chance with that.  It enhanced what we did.”

George & Emily talk wallpaper in David Cromer's production

George & Emily talk wallpaper in David Cromer’s production

It’s impossible to discuss Our Town in 2013 without acknowledging David Cromer’s astonishing 2010 production of the play, which has embedded itself so viscerally in many who saw it.  Indeed, my theatrical Twitter stream was alight with commentary about this production when I asked about the play.  The bacon, the water, the bacon.  Cromer’s production was staged in the intimate Barrow Street Theatre in New York, with the audience only inches from the actors.  His actors wore modern street clothes — jeans and polar fleece — as if they were contemporary small town New Englanders.  That is, until Emily goes back in Act III, when the audience was both visually and olfactorily (did I mention the bacon?) confronted with a palpable new understanding of Emily’s words, “So all that was going on and we never noticed.”

Charles Isherwood, in The New York Times, wrote, “In Mr. Cromer’s staging the artifice of theater that Wilder sought to strip away — by heightening it, paradoxically — is even further dissolved by the immersion of the actors in the audience, or the audience in the playing space, depending on how you look at it … It’s a beautiful feat of stagecraft that departs from tradition but transmits the essence of Wilder’s philosophy with an overwhelming sensory immediacy.”

You can go and smoke now, those that smoke

When it comes to three act plays in the early 21st Century, each director has his or her own thoughts about whether to honor Wilder’s two intermissions or to consolidate.  Chay Yew told me, “I cut the first intermission, took just one between Act II and Act III, because life is not broken.  We had life in the town, then a breath before death.”  Conversely, James Naughton said, “I eliminated the second intermission.  Church bells morphed from wedding into ‘for whom the bell tolls’ of Act III.  I hate plays that have two intermissions.  2nd intermission broke the dramatic tension.”

Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners

Writing about the play in 1969, New York Times critic Walter Kerr reflected, “We bring a curious intensity to our visits to Our Town these days, going to each successive revival in a strangely mixed hope and fear that the work will at last seem tarnished. I think we hope it will tarnish so that it will stop affecting us; it does affect us; it does make us cry, and we dislike being thought subject to such emotional impress….At the same time we are fearful it will turn up tarnished because it is one of our remembered pleasures.”

On Our Town’s 50th anniversary, playwright Lanford Wilson wrote in The New York Times, “Granted it’s been played soft, it’s been played sentimental, Our Town is hard as nails.”  In a foreward to an edition of the play, playwright Donald Margulies wrote, “Indeed the play’s success across cultural borders around the world attests to its being something much greater than an American play: it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.”

Chay Yew told me, “It’s a classic play and speaks to longing, wanting, living, breathing, dying.”  Plucking out another ventricle of the mystery, Michael Kahn said, “It has themes that every society can see; we all miss the richness of life.”  Fontaine Syer added, “When Emily comes back in Act III, and goes to see her family, and her mother cannot hear her, that’s the ‘pay attention.’  If we as a culture and as individuals could do that, we’d be a whole lot better off.”

Wilder wrote that, “Our Town is an attempt to find a value above price for the smallest events in our daily life.”  That’s what Jed Harris seems to have missed, at least partially, in his original staging of the play and in his focus on the family life rather than the fact that, as Emily discovers, “we don’t have time to look at one another.” Perhaps we keep staging this play because each production — however immediate, however holy, however deadly (in the Peter Brook sense of the words) they may be — reminds us, at least briefly, to realize life while we live it.

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