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

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

First we want a little more information about the town

There seems to be a nearly universal anxiety about the potential for the play to become mawkish in production, coupled with a rehearsal room realization that it is anything but maudlin. “Lots of directors go to it without a sense of why they’re doing it,” Peter Marks, Chief Drama Critic for the Washington Post, said to me when I asked for his assessment of the role of Our Town in our collective consciousness. “You do want Our Town to break your heart; it is a real tight rope to make it emotionally satisfying but not aspire to profundity.  It’s not a soap opera; the revelations are so matter-of-fact, so small but so devastating.”

Chay Yew, who directed a 2008 production on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, told me, “I felt it was so sentimental before I began, but I discovered that I loved the darkness within it.”  Similarly, Michael Kahn, who directed the play at the American Shakespeare Theatre in 1976, said, “I thought of it as a high school valentine before I did it.  Our Town is a hard-eyed, unsentimental critique of society. Yet also affectionate.”

James Naughton directed the Westport Playhouse production which transferred to Broadway in 2002; he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a production of Our Town.  I’m the only actor in America who had never done it, never even seen it.  After September 11th, we’d all taken a shot to the heart.  There is nothing saccharine in Wilder’s voice; it’s about what life really means.  I loved working on it; it was tremendously restorative.”

At Delaware Theatre Company, Fontaine Syer also directed the play after the September 11th attacks; like Naughton, she had never seen a mediocre high school production of the play.  Her first experience of Our Town was at Arena Stage in the early ‘70s; she became an assistant director to the production when it later toured the Soviet Union.  When Syer began rehearsals for her own production in October 2001, she said, “I went into it believing or wanting to believe that we were doing something to reinforce the community in the wake of this horror. In Wilmington, Delaware, a lot of people took the train into New York every day and worked in Manhattan.  Many, many more than you would’ve thought. The deaths in the Wilmington community were higher than I would’ve thought.  Our Town is about life and death. He starts talking about life and death.”

Kahn received a congratulatory letter from Wilder, “he said that I must be European because I understood his plays so well.”  For Yew, however, the otherness that the writing evokes is from a yet more distant shore:  “Wilder spent time in China. His use of characters with the bare stage, for me, was a sense of going home culturally. The play is Asian in that the characters don’t speak what they really feel. The gestures are presentational.”  Wilder himself felt that he was principally influenced by the bare Elizabethan stage, with a dash of Pirandello.  The range of these responses underpins the very universality of the play; every community, and perhaps every director, intuits a kinship with the themes, the characters or the structure.

Perhaps answering Jed Harris’ initial misapprehension of Wilder’s point, Fontaine Syer said, “A lot of people don’t really pay attention to the constant references to our lives fleeting, life being short, you never know when that final moment is going to come into your life, Wally dies on a camping trip, Emily dies in childbirth, the Civil War veterans — it’s about living but very much about dying.  If you listen, you have to think about your own life and what you’re doing with it. It’s hugely unromantic and it tells us things that are common to all of humanity and part of that communication for me says, ‘pay attention. This is a true thing.’  The nostalgic Americana notion comes from people who aren’t paying attention, who think Our Town is all the soda fountain scene.”

Michael Kahn says that Our Town is an “extraordinary play about community — representing any community, family relationships in any small town. It’s true that we don’t appreciate the present that we live in.”  You may recall Simon Stimson’s grim assessment, “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those … of those about you.” Referencing these lines, Naughton concurs with Kahn, adding, “Does one identify with Simon Stimson, which is, I think, Wilder’s own voice, at the end of the play?  If you don’t take the time to step back, while you’re doing it, then Simon is right.”

The evidence for Simon representing Wilder’s own point of view is thin.  Wilder was an active correspondent with a wide circle of friends throughout his life.  Drawing a distinction between himself and many of his peers, Wilder wrote, “I give (don’t I?) the impression of having enormously enjoyed it.”

In it you will see Miss C …; Miss D ….

Paul Newman among the dead in James Naughton's production

Paul Newman among the dead in James Naughton’s production













We always want to know who played the Stage Manager in a given production of Our Town.  Fred Gwynne played the role for Michael Kahn, Paul Newman for James Naughton, Nora Chester for Fontaine Syer and Anthony Heald for Chay Yew.  Robert Prosky, Hal Holbrook, Spaulding Gray, Henry Fonda, Pat Carroll and Lizan Mitchell have all guided audiences through a few days in the life of Grover’s Corners.  Of Gwynne, Michael Kahn said, “If anybody was unsentimental, it was Fred. He was caustic, dry, granite.” Of Paul Newman’s performance, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times in 2002, “he plays the Stage Manager less as a stand-in for God than as yet another bewildered member of the ensemble called the human race.”  Fontaine Syer didn’t set out to cast a woman in the role of the Stage Manager; she just knew that she wanted Nora Chester to play the part. “Nora is an actor who operates in what I dub the ‘breathing school’ of acting. You cannot see her working. You just see her being, breathing. I said very little to Nora; the best thing you can do as a director is not to get in her way.”Peter Marks told me when we spoke, “The Stage Manager is the most interesting character — that determines whether it is a really great production or just another production.  I have yet to see the definitive Stage Manager.  I think it eludes directors how to make direct address work.”

Several of the directors with whom I spoke mentioned the centrality of casting the right Emily.  James Naughton told me, “If Emily doesn’t hit it out of the park in Act III, forget it. Foxwoods [Casino] had a jingle at the time: ‘the wonder of it all.’ I spent time with Maggie Lacey on Act III, on what Emily discovers.  Slow way down, take your time, trust that we’ll go with you. It took a long time to get there, to the wonder of it all. You have to hand the play off to Emily; she’s gotta bring it on home.”

“Act III is her story,” says Chay Yew, “My Emily was Asian. I said to her, ‘You’ve never belonged. You are too smart. No one is going to marry a smart girl in this time. You can never have all that you want.’ She is so willful. The Stage Manager tells her that she cannot go back and immediately she says, ‘I want to go back.’  She’s too smart for George, who is basically a doofus.  She think he is Brad Pitt, asking for homework help while he’s off dating the cheerleaders.  But it turns out to be true love.  I told the cast that there are always mountains around you when you live in the valley.  The women in Grover’s Corners are more complex than the men but they are stifled by their husbands.  What do they give up?  Mrs. Webb wants to go to Paris but she’ll go look at the civil war monuments one more time. The suppression is very New England, almost Victorian.  We want all our Emilys to climb those goddamn mountains.”

Anthony Heald as the Stage Manager in Chay Yew's production at Oregon

Anthony Heald as the Stage Manager in Chay Yew’s production at Oregon

Observing that directors of color rarely get opportunities to direct classic plays from the Western canon, Yew said that coming to Our Town for the first time at the age of 40 was a gift for him.  “All the choices that the women couldn’t make — the notion of hope — every rehearsal, I found more in it.  I’ve never had 20 actors in my life; I could have Mrs. Simon Stimson looking for him.  I could explore / create the town.  I wanted to establish class, the rich people, the people across the railroad tracks.”

Fontaine Syer said that the actress who played Emily for her was talented, committed, well-trained: “Every once in a while she started to fall into too much emotional expression in Act III; all I said was, ‘you’ve got to save that for your trip back to Grover’s Corners. By the time you get to the graveyard, it’s already starting to be something that is no longer causing you pain.’”  The actors who played Simon Stimson and Mrs. Gibbs at Delaware set the tone, “He was incredibly dry. Mrs. Gibbs was waiting. Doing exactly what the stage directions said.”

Syer went on to talk about some of the issues that Yew had mentioned, but with a slightly different perspective, “’Women vote indirect,’ doesn’t mean Wilder liked that, but it was the world he was capturing. It is interesting to think about what could happen for Emily if she could get out of the New Hampshire.”

In the third segment of this post, I’ll talk about how these directors approached the staging of the play and Wilder’s stage direction, “No curtains, no scenery.”

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