By admin on Feb 27, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
Somehow, some way, almost every potential ticket buyer for the revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town will have encountered this classic. Perhaps it was during high school when it was assigned reading. Or perhaps they attended one of the two recent Broadway revivals. Theatergoers might even have seen it in a community theater, high school or college production. Regardless of how audiences might have experienced this chestnut about life, family, love and death at the turn of the last century in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, nothing could prepare them for director David Cromer's re-imagining of the work, which remains entirely true to the spirit of the script and delivers a stunning emotional blow.
The production unfolds in a rehearsal-like atmosphere. The performers wear contemporary street clothes and the house lights illuminate the space at the Barrow Street Theatre for nearly all of the production (lighting designer Heather Gilbert, like set designer Michael Spadaro, has some exceptional surprises in store). Cromer himself plays Wilder's Stage Manager, imbuing this narrator who comments on its action and its meaning, with a straightforwardness that instantly dispels any sense of sepia-tinted quaintness that may theatergoers many associate with the play.
The tone set by Cromer during the first few moments of the production sets the stage, pun fully intended, for the way in which the rest of the action unfolds. The Webb and Gibbs families rush through their morning breakfast rituals with a pandemonium that is instantly recognizable. When the matriarchs (Lori Myers, Kati Brazda) of these families get together for a morning tête-à-tête, it's not their activity – snapping beans in preparation for canning – on which audiences focus, it's the way in which the women plan how one will get her workaholic husband to take a vacation. Anyone who's ever been in a relationship will empathize fully with the exchange.
And so "Town" proceeds. Teenagers Emily (Jennifer Grace) and George (James McMenamin) work through algebra homework in their respective bedrooms – represented with two chairs put on top of two tables – and we know well before an achingly moving scene shared over ice cream sodas, that these two are meant for one another. George's father (a cunning and winning turn from Jeff Still), the town doctor, has to reprimand the young man for shirking chores around the house, and theatergoers simultaneously bristle, remembering similar confrontations from their pasts, and smile, seeing the way in which the doctor cleverly and effectively sets up his firm, yet loving, scolding.
Other events in the lives of the Gibbs and Webb clans are treated in a similar fashion. Both the big and the small are rendered with a straightforwardness that eschews sentimentality, and thus ensures that each has its maximum possible impact on contemporary theatergoers. The same can be said of events around the town – from the chronic alcoholism that plagues church organist Simon Stimson (a terrifically understated Jonathan Mastro) to the almost zealously tearful joy experienced by Mrs. Soames (Donna Jay Fulks) as George and Emily walk down the aisle. Some of the finest work comes from Grace and McMenamin in these two central roles as their characters age from mid-teens into their late 20s. Grace displays a kind of tomboyishness early on that gives way to the certainty of late-adolescence, a quality which is ultimately replaced by a strong sense of compassion and assuredness. McMenamin's portrayal of George also deepens artfully as the play progresses, and yet, there's a certain charm to the fact that this George remains something of an Ashton Kutchner type throughout.
Of course it's no secret that the final act of "Town" takes place in a cemetery where Emily is laid to rest, but it's in this act that Cromer has a terrific coup de théâtre in store for audiences that is simultaneously breathtaking and emotionally devastating. It's a cunning twist to all that has preceded – in both the production's tone and in the performances – that allows this play, so hallowed in some regards that it's become a cliché of itself, and Wilder's message to resound with clarion intensity.
---- Andy Propst
Our Town plays at the Barrow Street Theatre (27 Barrow Street). Performances are Tuesday through Friday at7:30pm; Saturday & Sunday at 2:30 & 7:30pm. Tickets are $40 & $69 and can be purchased by calling 212-868-4444 or by visiting www.SmartTix.com. Further information is available online at www.OurTownOffBroadway.com.
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