Presented at the Barrow Street Theatre
Directed by David Cromer
This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama (comedy?) by Thornton Wilder debuted in 1938, and has been beaten to death by every college and high school in the intermittent 70 odd years of its existence. I had never seen it, but from the description I was not sure I ever wanted to. I do regret not having seen Raymond Bobgan's production at CPT in 2007. In addition to admiring Raymond's work, many had recommended it to me.
My date for the evening says she saw it at a local high school and has never wanted to see the show ever since. I can understand why it could come off as maudlin, stilted, dated, mawkish, or just plain boring.
When I announced my visit to friends and asked for ideas for plays to see, Seth strongly suggested David Cromer's version, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. That was good enough for me, and though it post-dates the time I am concentrating on by two years, I thought it was certainly a worthwhile addition to my studies.
I did not expect to see Michael McKean step onstage in the role of the Stage Manager (for those who do not know the play, the "Stage Manager" acts a guide and narrator for the audience, which means he's not really anything like a stage manager at all) while was in itself pretty freaking awesome. It gets better.
WIlder worked to strip away the artifice of theater for the production, instructing the use of limited sets and to "mime" the use of various props. The young lovers Emily and George speak to each other from their respective next-door windows by standing on ladders - in most productions. In this one they are seated at chairs on top of tables. Small tables. It made me nervous. But as I was saying, limited "theatricality." In this production, that meant modern dress. They dress in character, but as though these people from 1901 were living now. That doesn't mean they are living now, we are told this play takes place beginning in 1901, only instead of having little set, and no props, they also have no costumes. Just clothes.
In the final scene, when the dead Emily realizes she can relive a day from her life, a curtain is stripped back at one end of the stage - right next to me, as this is a very small space and we were seated right on the floor of the playing area - to reveal a hyper-realistic home from the late 19th century, with bacon frying and steaming hot coffee (we had previously seen actors mining making coffee not once but twice) and Emily's mother and father in period dress.
It was startling. It was so theatrical! And as the point is that living people never notice the details, the little things that made life worth living, we the audience were struck suddenly with so many interesting things to look at, and hear, and smell! The modern clothes we had been watching for the entire play were so ordinary, but this shining moment was so vibrant and full of intricate detail. For a moment. And then it was gone again.
But it was also fake. In that it was a set for a play. So instead of being drawn into the scene, we were all very aware of its not-realness. Which made the performances we had been seeing so much more honest. I was being pulled back and forth. And I liked it.
This would have had no significant effect were not the rest of the way so well-executed, by the director and his performers. Moving, upsetting, downright scary in places. And everywhere, humor. And you know what else? The actor who usually plays George (pictured) was absent this evening. His understudy went on, and he was replaced by his, and so on in a chain of five performers playing what they usually do not. And if they hadn't told us, I would not have known. That's great company.
The person I saw the show with just texted to thank me for making her no longer hate Our Town.
I caught Michael McKean outside the theater, thanked him for his performance and shook his hand. I did not make any Clue references.