By Philip Pearce
THOSE WELL-LOVED INHABITANTS of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, have imbedded themselves so deeply in American theatre history that it’s easy to forget what a revolutionary piece of work Our Town still is. The 1938 play took New York audiences by storm with its radical ideas about how things should happen on a stage and to the audience watching them happen. Eighty years later, major innovations introduced in Thornton Wilder’s script are still being explored and exploited by twenty-first century theater radicals all over the world.
Our Town (except the movie version) is, as everyone knows, performed without scenery or props or any but essential furniture. That same bare stage approach has become the hallmark of Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s recent highly praised re-workings of classics like A View from the Bridge and Hedda Gabler.
Before Our Town introduced a direct interplay between actor and audience, American playgoers were (and still usually are) invited to act as if they were spying on a piece of real life crafted by someone like Maxwell Anderson or Lillian Hellman. Wilder’s script tore away that fourth wall of separation and turned audiences from peeping Toms into participants, aware that they are watching a play, receiving suggestions about what to watch for and even being asked for opinions about what they are seeing.
That’s become a twenty-first century approach praised for its innovative power in productions like Simon Stephens’ 2013 adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which you can see at PacRep this coming June. Like Our Town, the Stephens script and production make it clear you aren’t looking at a slice of life: you’re watching a group of men and women use their acting skills to tell you a story.
I guess nothing succeeds like innovation, even if it only really takes hold eighty years on.
The central innovation of Wilder’s play is the Stage Manager, scripted as a man but now played by the gifted Suzanne Sturn in a new Our Town which just opened at Santa Cruz Center Stage. Like previous Stage Managers, she controls the action and provides background on the characters and the town. Unlike most of her predecessors, Sturn says she sees the play and her direction of it in terms of a study of Japanese Noh drama and movement which she shares with the playwright. It shows in the mime and clarity of action she instills in her cast. When Susan Forrest, busy but reflective as Mrs. Gibbs, and Gail Borkowski, as her no-nonsense neighbor Mrs. Webb, do their household chores they work with a precision that means, props or no props, they know exactly which utensil or jar or platter they are dealing with and what they are doing with it. When Maxwell Bjork’s George Gibbs catches an imaginary baseball, you feel its weight as it smacks into his invisible mitt. But beyond any traditional Japanese heritage, Wilder’s Stage Manager also functions as a Greek chorus, offering a spiritual context to immediate events as they enter the day-to-day life of Grover’s Corners and reflect on their emotional implications. The gender switch works well in the hands of the intense and imaginative Sturn. This Stage Manager isn’t the musing pipe-smoker of Frank Craven or the wise New England nice-guy offered by Paul Newman. She’s an attractive, competent, reflective woman who knows the answers and keeps the action moving, sometimes by rearranging chairs and tables, sometimes by interrupting actors and gesturing them off into the wings when a scene has made its point.
The play offers set-pieces as familiar to acting classes as Romeo below Julie’s balcony or Hamlet holding onto Yorick’s skull. I waited eagerly for the appealing Maxwell Bjork and the bright and touching Isabel Cruz to mount their ladders and become clever Emily Webb sharing moonlight and algebra homework hints with her popular but educationally challenged next-door neighbor George Gibbs. The pair form the emotional heart of the story and perform pleasingly here as in their later scene at the soda fountain and their wedding at the end of Act 2. Cruz has a clear speaking voice and handles Emily’s complicated emotional shifts with skill. Bjork has the appealing bounce and vigor of an affectionate puppy; he’s full of an energy which works perfectly for George’s early scenes of swell-headed immaturity but might helpfully slow down and deepen when Emily and his philosophical doctor dad (Dennis Hungridge) have taught George some home truths about growing up.
Our Town’s memorable moments and loveable folk are there to form a link between the immediate and the eternal. This production manages the balance nicely. The script gives the Stage Manager the comic/pedantic job of laying out facts and figures about Grover’s Corners’ population, ethnicity, geography and culture. Much of this happens early on with the aid of Bob Colter, ably doubling in a small but memorable sequence as a bumbling local professor full of statistics and in the central role of Emily’s father, the wise and well-informed editor of the local paper. He is quietly funny in his handling of questions from plants in the audience asking about social consciousness and cultural sensitivity in Grover’s Corners. But the text again and again links all this routine home-town data with the Stage Manager’s insistence that, whatever our belief system, we humans share a sense that there is something eternal happening behind the births, marriages and deaths of everyday life. Or at least used to share back in 1938.
Wilder never allows things to go too metaphysical or mawkish. In a favorite moment, George’s sister Rebecca asks her parents to guess what it is she loves most in all the world. When they fail to guess right, she tells them dreamily that it’s money. Lizzie Sepeda does well by this bit of conversation. She’s less successful with Rebecca’s weird and wonderful reflection on a peculiar letter that’s been addressed to a school chum named Jane. Is the speech inspirational? Ironic? Both? Sepeda seems uncertain and we lose the full force of a moment of off-beat wisdom Wilder wants to leave us with as Act 1 closes.
Like Oklahoma!, Our Town has a folksy veneer that covers a harsh underlying statement about human nature. For Emily, it’s a truth that only surfaces when she dies in childbirth and joins her mother-in-law and her brother Wally in the town’s hilltop cemetery. Against the better judgment of others in the graveyard, she is allowed to return and relive one day in her life. The venture turns into a bitter disappointment. Emily rejoins the other wraiths in the cemetery, aware that even the mundane banalities of life down below in the mortal world are part of a pattern of creative glory that humans are too busy being mundane and banal to recognize or appreciate.
It’s too easy to glide across the surface of Our Town as though it’s an evening of feel-good bucolic nostalgia. It’s not.
This pleasing version continues at 1001 Center Street, Santa Cruz, through April 22.