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Our Town

Scott Morfee Jean Doumanian Tom Wirtshafter Ted Snowdon Eagle Productions Dena Hammerstein/Pam Pariseau The Weinstein Company Burnt umber Productions present OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder. at the BARROW STREET THEATRE, New York.

This award winning Off-Broadway production of OUR TOWN is playing in the Barrow Street Theatre which is part of a local community centre called Greenwich House. “Since the beginning, Greenwich House has been a pioneer social service agency and committed to the arts as a dynamic stimulus for cultural enrichment and individual growth.” To buy one’s ticket at the theatre, one clambers past prams and strollers, women with young babies and children, older citizens waiting for an appointment – either medical or government, and patients attending drug and or alcohol recovery sessions, to a small window looking into a room where a couple of people are talking and seemed to be in the business of running a theatre box office. Pleasantly and with a kind of old fashioned patience and generosity I am sold a ticket for the matinee performance. All in all this is a very gentle entry to the world of our town as Mr Wilder might see it today. A live, functioning community of very ordinary people.

The performance space feels like a converted small town hall. Seats surround three sides and to reach my seat, I cross the playing area which simply has two small, square, solid wooden tables with non-descript chairs. A single row of chairs for an audience sit close to the playing space and behind them a wider alleyway spreads to the feet of the raked seating for the rest of the audience. (Scenic Design Michelle Spadaro).

When we all seem to have gathered, a man dressed casually and much like most of the audience steps forward and begins “This play is called ‘Our Town’. It was written by Thornton Wilder…” He then introduces the producers and the actors of this production and then details the circumstances of the town, verbally and gesturally laying it out for us and gradually draws the characters into life. They too dressed much like us (Costume Design, Alison Siple) begin to enact simple activities of rising into the day. This gentleman known as the Stage Manager (Michael Shannon) laconically, ironically, gently acts as our guide through a twelve year history of the people in this town. From births to schooling to marriage and death we meet a panoply of ordinary folk.

Some claim this is a great American play…
“Possibly the great American play” says David Margulies, in the Foreword to the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of the text:
“…Like many works of great art, its greatness can be deceptive: a bare stage, spare language, archetypal characters… Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind, Wilder wrote, not in ‘scenery’. …Indeed he begins the play with: “No curtain. No scenery.”

A bare stage, in this production both set and costumes almost literally so: none.

The last act is set in the town cemetery and the staging here is simply people seated on chairs much like ours, and the spread of the actors cross the stage and up into the audience body, all three sides. I felt that I was sitting like the actors in “My own grave-cemetery plot”. The actors are so simply present and so real that it is both discomforting and wondrous. One of the actors, an aged gentleman with a head and disposition as powerful as the Easter Island statuary (Jason Yachanin), fascinates me for the sheer ordinariness and accuracy of the aesthetic. Transcendent belief occurs. A surrender to one’s own committed imagination and feeling.

Years ago I saw a most remarkable production of THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA at the New Theatre (Directed by Mary-Anne Gifford) and whatever the strengths and weaknesses are of that organisation, it has often the felicity to cast actors that are so much like the physical life/truths of the population that they purport to represent, that their sometimes untrained offers transcend the usual theatrical necessities and capture your imagination in a way that all the whiz bang CCTV gimmicks of the major companies cannot do. So it is here. Then in a spectacular ‘coup de theatre’, the Stage manager pulls back a black masking curtain to reveal a detailed period kitchen, smells of breakfast and all the frosty snow-scape outside through the window as the dead Emily Webb is granted a wish to visit her family one last time, before resting in her plot like the others. The family appear in full period costume and the aching pain of the spiritual Emily as she sees the everyday of breakfast is such that she pleads:

“Oh, Mama, just look one minute as though you really saw me……I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another… Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” “No”, replies the Stage Manager, “The saints and the poets, maybe – they do some.” “Were you happy?” asks one of the dead. “No,” Emily replies”…I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.”

The greatness of this play is the exploration of the “cosmic in the commonplace.” Writing novels as well as literature for the theatre, Wilder is a radical artist working on themes and theatrical experimentations that engaged other artists like Priestly and Pirandello. (He is a winner of three Pulitzer prizes, including one for this play.) The power is in the utter simple, undecorated observations that he invites his audience to imagine for themselves. The experience of this production by David Cromer is so disarmingly simple matching the vision of Mr Wilder without sentimentality or nostalgia that its profundity catches you unaware and moves one to a spiritual dimension unexpected but healthful in its affect.

Some of the reading of the characters by some of the actors causes one to hesitate a complete embrace unequivocably, but the overall tone and commitment of the production’s vision by the company ultimately sweeps even those quibbles away.

It is a remarkable experience. Remarkable for the very considered choices and the apparent courage to trust Mr Wilder completely that Mr Cromer and his fellow collaborators undertake. Maybe this is the great American Classic. The STC will present this play later this year. There is much to challenge this view in the canon of the American Theatre literature. Here in Sydney, Eugene O’Neill’s great LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT hopefully will give some cause to debate.