BOSTON — Ever go to a movie where you’re the only one not laughing? A concert where you’re the only one who’s not up and clapping along? A funeral where you’re the only one not crying?
Welcome to “Our Town.” Or David Cromer’s town, a revisiting of Grover’s Corners, Thornton Wilder’s vision of small-town life in New England. Cromer is a MacArthur genius who’s won rave after rave for his direction of both “Our Town” and “Tribes” in New York. So it’s quite a coup for the Huntington Theatre Company to get him here to restage “Our Town” in the Roberts Theatre at the BCA (through Jan. 26) with a largely local cast.
It’s an imaginative staging in three-quarters space, with the actors moving through the first two rows of the audience and sometimes addressing individual members. Attention levels stay high without actually forcing the audience into doing anything silly or uncomfortable. Cromer is also the Stage Manager, more or less the narrator of the goings-on in Grovers, introducing characters, often telling us what they do, and when and how they’re going to die.
Here’s the difference between Cromer’s vision and others. The Stage Manager is usually an avuncular fellow, a James Whitmore or Spencer Tracy type of nice old man with a twinkle and a pair of suspenders. Cromer is a glib, dismissive tour guide who makes Spalding Gray’s postmodern Stage Manager of the ‘80s look like Mr. Rogers. He reminds me of the kind of self-satisfied docent who speaks humorlessly, often with his hands, the kind you’d like to kick in the shins and say, “Get over yourself.”
The purpose is to make us see “Our Town” as our town, indeed. Cell phones are acknowledged. Hats are worn backwards. Clothes are designed to be contemporary. New England accents are almost nowhere to be found. Sentimentality is to be avoided at all costs.
To many – most – this is revelatory. The traditional “Our Town,” it’s said, has become the stuff of safe theater, thereby undercutting what Wilder was really talking about – that beneath all these homespun homilies people don’t face up to the fact that they have to live life to the fullest before the graveyard calls and our town becomes a graveyard. You can even put a more Beckett-like depressive twist on life in Grover’s. And if this production makes you see that for the first time, more power to you and good on Cromer.
Personally, I don’t buy it. First of all, I’ve never seen a production of “Our Town” where it wasn’t obvious what Wilder was ultimately saying, including the Westport County Playhouse production with Paul Newman, who was very much that avuncular Stage Manager (and was quite brilliant, by the way).
If we’re talking about resignation, tragedy, the quest for something eternal weighed against the feeling that life sucks and then we die, then that seems so embedded in Wilder that I don’t know what you get by using a sledgehammer to deliver the message. Most productions are also as stripped down as this one.
I think Wilder was as subversive a playwright as Charles Ives was a composer – using Americana as a way of questioning it. Cromer does, too. Here’s where I disagree with him, though. Wilder and Ives were also incredibly fond of that Americana. The small town values were also something to be celebrated, even while questioning how far they could take you in life. Cromer’s “Our Town” reminds me of musicians who play Ives as the first great atonalist rather than as a romantic who was also embracing the modern world.
There’s a difference between romanticism and sentimentality and Wilder knew what it was. To me, it’s that romanticism turning into modernism that makes “Our Town” an extraordinary play. When you take the characters out of time and place – and make them timeless Everymen and Everywomen – you leave them stranded in a Bizarro Universe. Life was simply different before the Global Village and its Internet aftermath and to yank these people into the 21st century seems wrongheaded. The flat, more contemporary recitation of the prose seems ridiculous. Imagine Wolf Blitzer reading “The Brothers Karamazov” aloud.
Something else is lost. You can hear the words “our town” as underlining how contemporary the play is. We live in that town as much as the characters do (though, as I said, we don’t). But you can also hear it as shared responsibility – we’re all in this together, as in what the narrator says about the Civil War: “New Hampshire boys had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than 50 miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends — the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.”
In this production, there’s a kind of antiwar dismissal of those sentiments. Wilder is saying something more complex than that, though, that there’s some idea of a common good that is balanced against the absurdity of laying down one’s life for a concept. It’s the kind of duality that makes “Our Town” a better play than it’s often given credit for.
There is a terrific scene in the third act of the play that I won’t spoil, a traditional piece of stagecraft that puts the rest of Cromer’s take on “Our Town” into stark relief, and maybe even justifying the whole concept. On the other hand, the question is do we really need to be bludgeoned for two hours with how boring life in Grover’s Corners is in order to make this scene so revelatory?
I would vote no. In the end, Cromer’s village seems like a more reductionist than expansive view of what has never seemed like an exercise in nostalgia to me.
Here’s the Huntington’s take on the production: