Do not miss a masterpiece onstage right now presented by the Huntington Theatre Company: OUR TOWN. There is no way to talk about this re-staging of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play without feeling the fullness of its resonance almost 75 years after it premiered on Broadway, in the context of the recent tragedy that has befallen a perfectly ordinary real New England town. Thornton Wilder’s classic speaks with simple, profound grace, even as it unsettles us with the conundrum of what it is to live a human life.
This acclaimed production, a re-conception by director David Cromer who earned an Obie for his work in 2009, harkens back to the 1938 original. Cromer who will play the Stage Manager until Dec. 30th, approaches Wilder’s unsparing vision–as director and performer– with precision, and without sentiment. He is joined by a sprawling cast of 33 of some of Boston’s finest actors.
With the lights in the house still on, the Stage Manager enters the performance space–which includes the entire audience; before we know it, the play has begun and we are in the middle of life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, N.H. at the beginning of the last century.
Yellow notebook in hand, the all-seeing Stage Manager points out the lay of the land– the schools and churches, the cow pastures, the two houses belonging to the Gibbs and the Webb families, homes to young George and Emily, neighbors who have grown up together, who will marry and have children. We follow the trajectory of their lives and the lives of those in the town.
There are no sets –but for a few tables and chairs– per Wilder’s instructions; the actors wander among us, obliterating the fourth wall. Unencumbered by props and scenery, these characters begin to be seen as both specific and universal; we start to understand that they and all of us — caught in the familiar tropes of our everyday lives– are also connected over space and time through our very human feelings, thoughts, dreams, and mortality.
The genius of this production lies in Cromer’s close attention to the stage directions and the text. Does Emily (Therese Plaehn) really say– just before she walks down the aisle to marry George(Derrick Trumbly)– that marriage is terrible and that she hates him? Yes. Emily and George are in love and wanting, but also frightened and lonely. In fact, as we look around our town we observe that the varied and joyous rituals of family, friendship, and daily life, are also laced with sorrow, confusion, anger, and tragedy.
This precise adherence to the tone and import of the text is potently revealing. Life is wonderful– and terrible, beautiful and cruel; it has always been so, and there are no easy answers. Wilder understands that when we are in the middle of living life, we don’t see it clearly– and perhaps we can’t.
That’s when the third act delivers a blow so stunning it just about took my head off. We are telescoped out, then abruptly plunged back into a world of painfully vivid, almost surreal life, precious and brief– and we feel the ache of leaving it. The miraculous staging renders an extravagant slice of reality, pungent with sounds, smells, feelings, and a heightened sense that “something in us is eternal,” something that we–alive in the throes of the familiar– are too close to see. Act three will break your heart.
And so, at the beginning of this century, does the horror of Newtown–suddenly our town. What happened there has wrenched us from our daily lives and brought us all to the same place, the edge of the unexplained terrors of this world. We find ourselves instantly linked to each other and those 26 souls taken into eternity without warning, and too soon.
Theater at its best provides solace, a sense of community, and insight into the human condition. The Huntington’s brilliant OUR TOWN is just such a production.
OUR TOWN: Now extended through January 26 at the Huntington Theatre second stage, Roberts Studio Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.