Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Our Town

"Our Town" at the Barrow Street Theatre, September 15, 2009

With as many plays as I've seen, I had never experienced a full production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I've suffered through a number of Emilys braying out her good-bye monologue in high school beauty pageants and auditions, so I was...concerned about what the evening might hold. I had read the plentiful praise heaped on this production and, unfortunately, didn't rush to see it earlier in the summer. I say unfortunately, only in that I ran the risk of not getting a chance to see this production at all.

Mr. Wilder's tale of small town life in New Hampshire at the beginning of the 20th century has been stripped to its barest essentials by director David Cromer. The theatre has been reconfigured into a thrust stage with some audience members seated in the middle of the action. The simplest of set pieces, two tables each with four matching chairs represent the homes of the Gibbes' and the Webb's.

Costumes by Alison Siple are contemporary and casual - jeans, sweaters, knit caps, shirts and ties. The effect is totally disarming as these non-descript "modern" clothes enforce the timelessness of the script, rather than undermine it as a choice like this so often can. Also, Heather Gilbert's lighting, a combination of aluminum clip-lights above a matrix of industrial/institutional hanging fixtures keeps the entire house lit, only occasionally dimming for certain scenes. How refreshing to look up and not see a grid of 245,000 instruments threatening a brown-out before pulling down the ceiling as has become the standard of so many productions.

The cast is uniformly excellent. James McMenamin's George is truly the average boy next door, as innocent and callow as any teenage boy ever was, yet sensitive to the point of tears as his father chastises him for neglecting household chores. Jennifer Grace's Emily matches that insecurity of a bright and shy teenage girl. That worn out "good-bye" monologue has been staged and performed with more intensity and emotion than I ever could have imagined. Jason Butler Harner's Stage Manager carries the weight of the show, managing not just the actors, but the audience as well.

Mr. Cromer's elegant and pure approach has breathed life into the play, confirming it as one of the great literary achievements in theatre. His direct, yet tender treatment of the text creates a truer world than I've seen on stage in a long time.

The run has been extended into 2010.

Go see this play while you have the chance.

Starwatch: Leonard Nimoy in the audience.

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