I saw a production of Our Town once. It was in our theater in Dwire Hall many years ago. Danny Bristol was in it. He’s retired now, driving an ice cream truck. He was hit on his motorcycle over on Academy a while back and flipped over four lanes of traffic.But he’s all right now, and beating me in tennis whenever he gets me on the court. Sherri Thomas was in it too, playing Emily Webb. She grew up and married Danny and has been teaching elementary school for two decades. Ken Wohlford was George. Wonderful, sweet, cherub face with a great head of tossed carrot hair. I don’t know what became of Ken. This was a pretty decent production, full of nice people, and I hated it. Loathed it. Went around for weeks talking about what a crap play Our Town was. How it was all pretense and sugar. I vowed that was a play we would never ever do again. We’d leave it to the high schools.
But about two years ago I was talking to Bob Pinney—some of you will remember him---and I asked what he thought THEATREWORKS should do next season. He said Our Town. Why, I wanted to know, when everyone in America had either seen it or been in it, probably both? Because, he said, “it’s a great play.” Although I would never admit it to his face, I actually did listen to Bob Pinney, and I went back and read the play and thought, OK, it is a good play, and we might as well do it in our coming season largely devoted to classic American drama. So we signed on, and I with at least half a heart.
Early this year I read about a new production of Our Town directed by David Cromer that had begun in Chicago and was transferring to a small theater in New York—it was getting rave reviews. I thought maybe I should go see it, and I did, at the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village, and I experienced an almost religious conversion. About ten minutes into the performance I was in tears. I had no idea why. Nothing had happened. The Stage Manager had given us the layout of Grover’s Corners. Howie Newsome had delivered his milk, the kids had rushed off to school, the moms were stringing green beans. Must have been jet lag, I thought. But it wasn’t jet lag. It was a great play delivered up close and personal in a small theater just the way I like it.
In its time (1938) Our Town was a radical theater experiment. The famous first four words of its stage directions read: “No curtain. No Scenery.” Wilder’s intention was to strip away all the fancy trimmings and ornamentation—both of theater and of life itself— revealing something simpler and deeper, something more ordinary and more precious. One of my problems with the play—or with the play as I had seen it until now—was that these claims were as much pretense as fact. OK, there was never much scenery—but there was everything else: turn of the century costumes, gorgeous lighting, a zillion sound cues. The productions I had seen of Our Town were only pretend simple—there was still lots of stuff in Grover’s Corners. And lots of sentimentality too. Everyone in the town was just so adorable you could feel the audience going gee whiz and aw shucks all the time—exactly the kind of airbrushed memory that does real life, real theater, and real feeling a disservice . Leave that to Beaver. I know I may sound like Simon Stimson, the cynical choir director of Grover’s Corners, when I write such things. But I bet every good director of the play sets out to avoid this sentimentality that lives next door to Grover’s Corners; some would say deep within. Cromer’s was the first production I had seen which actually succeeded in getting rid of all the padding, all the stuff, and most all of the sugar too. What was left was not one bit sour, and never too sweet. What was left was our life in our town, the way it was then and the way it is now.
There is sugar in Grover’s Corners, just not the alarming 22 teaspoons that Americans consume every day. There are two strawberry sodas and there is an abundance of moonlight. There is also a ton of beans, plenty of homework, reading the newspaper, falling in love, getting married, and lots of “smoke going up the chimney.” Wilder’s achievement in this play is the achievement of a journalist, and a classics scholar, and a grandson of clergymen: Wilder was all three. He manages to give us the familiar details of life as it has been lived over and over by people like you and me, but he also sets this life in the context of vast time and space, in the context of eternity you might say. I have a postcard of our galaxy with an arrow pointing to a mass of light that says, “You are here.” That’s more or less where Grover’s Corners is too. The experience of this play is one of simultaneously being in our life and watching our life from a great distance. It is heartwarming, and it is chilling, both sobering and comforting, familiar and also supernatural. It is altogether ordinary and altogether remarkable. There is really nothing like it.
Chrissey Bakkin is our Emily as Sherri Thomas was before her. Steven Weitz, lately the prince of Denmark up the road in Boulder this summer, is our Stage Manager. Ben Bonenfant is George Gibbs, a George with brown hair this time. Leslie O’Carroll, who you may remember as Ma Joad, is now Mrs. Gibbs making breakfast for her family and Emily Paton Davies is across the way making breakfast for hers. Tom Paradise and Steve Wallace--you’ve seen them before--are the town’s newspaper editor and doctor. There are another sixteen or so remarkable ordinary actors filling up the town’s population down on Main Street and up there in that place on the hill. By the time we open in our town, Danny Bristol won’t be serving ice cream anymore and Bob Pinney will be hanging out in the Bon Vivant rose bushes. It’s almost 7:30 in the evening in Grover’s Corners, and many of the good people of our town are ready to see a play about themselves and a whole lot more. You come along too.