by Thornton Wilder
directed by David Cromer
@ The Broad Stage, Santa Monica
through February 12
Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town has been a part of my American cultural mindset since high school, practically all my life. And, of course, being a New Englander, it is not very hard to put myself into Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, even though the time period for the play 1901-1913 is about 30 + years before my existence. People are people and daily life was pretty much the same; things - except cars replacing horse and buggy - didn't really start changing until the middle of the 20th century. Now in this spaced out, high tech, faster-than-the-speed-of-light world we live in, it's nice to look back and see how it once was and reflect on what it maybe should be. On the Broad stage through February 12 only, David Cromer's fascinating staging puts his audience smack dab in the middle of the town and makes us believe we have time-traveled back to this simpler but just as psychologically complicated era. How inexpensive things cost, how people trusted one another, and how they amused themselves by reading, attending choir practice or actually conversing with one another instead of being glued to the TV set or sidetracked by other low quality, insignificant perversions! But there were some who just could not cope, like Mr. Stimson, the alcoholic choir director, who ended up committing suicide. We've all known people like him. So, the play is timeless. And somehow contemporary dress for the actors is not a hindrance to our accepting who and where they are, as it makes them like us, as we all fit together into one big macrocosm.
I could go on and on. I see my mother in Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. She worked her fingers to the bone. She didn't long to go to Paris, like Mrs. Gibbs, but she certainly longed for something beyond the confines of the kitchen and her daily chores around the house caring for me and my father. Nonetheless, she did her job with little complaining and brought me up to be respectful of others - something that is sorely missing from many in this current generation.
Let's be specific about Cromer's unusual staging. It is in the three-quarter and the Broad stage is arranged almost as if it were a gymnasium with bleacher-type seating - here on three sides instead of two, and 99% of the action takes place on the floor with, as usual, a minimum of props. Some action is also played out cinematically, from one end of the auditorium to the other, as actors move - walk, run, whatever is required in the scene - around in a circle behind the first row of seats, to give the effect of moving about the streets of the town. The choir scene in Act I is in the balcony, so some audience must swivel in their seats in order to see it. Interesting, pulling us into the action, making us feel part of Grover's Corners - and for the most part, it works exceedingly well. The only difficulty is sometimes hearing the actors. If you sit center, it is difficult to hear what occurs at the back end of the stage, where the Webb kitchen is set up. If you are sitting on the sides facing the Webb kitchen, it will be hard to hear what transpires in the Gibbs' kitchen, or at the wedding ceremony in Act II, which is front and center, at the opposite end. The actors could be miked, I suppose, but that would ruin the effect of the play as written. It would further complicate the simplicity of the early 1900s.Wilder might turn over in his grave! Anyway, I admire this novel, exciting execution and what it is attempting to do, so the slight straining to hear at certain times did not take away my appreciation of the overall evening.
The cast are all top notch. Helen Hunt may be one the first female stage managers, but her straight-forward, intelligent, impersonal, no-nonsense approach to it works admirably. Lori Myers as Mrs. Gibbs is wonderfully edgy, functioning at top speed, as she keeps her longings locked inside. One scream for daughter Rebecca to come downstairs to breakfast is enough for us to sense just how tense she really is. Equally affecting is Kati Brazda as Mrs. Webb. Both execute the workaholic housewife syndrome to the letter. Jennifer Grace as Emily and James McMenamin as George are terrific especially in playing out the awkward stages of their early courtship in Act II. Jeff Still as Doc Gibbs, Tim Curtis as Editor Webb, Matthew Kimbrough as Constable Warren, Coby Getzug as Joe Crowell Jr. and the rest of the ensemble are in sync.
Despite the aforementioned acoustical problems, the overall production is worthy of immense praise. One line that Hunt speaks in Act III will stick with me forever: "Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear?" We all want that special light from within to shine forever. Thornton Wilder tapped into humanity then, now and most likely for all eternity - and of this fine production, he would be proud.