Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"He just cut his hand. . .whilst eating a apple."
The quote above is about as dramatic as it gets in Our Town. Grovers Corners, that is, in New Hampshire. Does that make it clear to you that I am not a fan of this play? I am not. I have seen nine productions now and only number eight, about three and a half weeks ago in Chatham, NY, really got to me. The latest production on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival is peopled with wonderful actors, played up against a bizarre set, with the emotional resonance of cream cheese. Itís all the fault of the author who has crafted one of the best-known and best-loved American plays. If only there was a play there.
Wilder gives us a tapestry of small town America at the turn of the last century. He has created a narrator he calls the Stage Manager and that character has been a lasting problem for me since my earliest days with this play. He is not a stage manager in spite of director Nicholas Martinís inventive dumb-show actions at the top of Act One. He is a narrator with a bizarre knowledge of the future; he becomes a god-like starkeeper in the third act and in-between he plays many roles. He might as well be called the General Understudy for that seems to fit him better and would be, for me, less confusing.
This character is beautifully played with a simplicity and honesty, both of which struck me as unusual, by Campbell Scott. Here the actor makes no pretense of his role. He goes about his business, often just leaning on the proscenium arch watching the scene unfold before him, with a Spartan gaze. He is an observer, just like the audience, and if he knows how a scene will go, he rarely shares that information with body language. Scott is a brilliant interpreter of this role, the best Iíve ever seen. Itís just that I cannot decide who or what he is and what his relationship is to the implied reality here.
Among the people he watches are John Rubenstein and Becky Ann Baker as the elder Gibbs folk. These two actors bring so much to their roles that itís not hard to believe you know them. Both are recognizable, not as themselves, but as the people they portray. Baker in particular is most accessible as Julia Gibbs. Itís a lovely performance in the first two acts and an enigmatic one in the final scene of the play. She is compelling throughout, though, and that says a lot for this role.
As the Webbs, across the street, Dylan Baker and Jessica Hecht struggle a bit more to be liked. He is irascible and she is shrill. He hates intimacy and she loathes sloth. He adores his daughter Emily (played with a grating soprano voice by too pretty Brie Larson) and she loves to flaunt her New Hampshire accent which was sometimes hard to cut through. Again, both actors seem to have become the people they portray.
George Gibbs, the young hero, if there is such a thing in this play, is defined by Will Rogers who seems to have no idea who George might be. Thirty two other actors portray the balance of the townspeople. They all do as well as might be expected with this material.
Weíre told at the beginning of the play that in Groverís Corners people are born, grow up, marry and die and thatís about it. The play shows us how that works out. Weíre also told that no one important ever came from there. Bryce Pinkham plays a man who came from there, established something, and came home for the funeral that is at the center of Act Three. We have to wonder if he is someone who at least made good or if he is just a stand-in for the author himself who redefined this concept in his final novel, about a boy who leaves his small town home to make it in a larger, brighter world.
Physically the set by David Korins defies the description of the set as spouted by the Stage Manager. It was an interesting set, but definitely in the wrong play. Kenneth Posnerís lighting design did some beautiful things and some baffling things and when the stage needed the special light that heavy morning rain provides, he gave us nothing. Gabriel Berryís costumes helped to define each of the characters very nicely. Michael Friedmanís original music was innocuous and so worked with the production just fine.
Mr. Martin celebrates Wilderís concepts as written and does a fine job with his company, all of whom do what they can to complement Wilderís words with their performances. What Mr. Martin has not done is bring to light anything new or interesting in this play. One of the most popular pieces, both its words and ideas are left on the page in this incarnation. What Martin has given us is pretty pictures where nothing happens and no one really changes.
Martin freezes Wilderís friezes and for two hours and sixteen minutes we are suspended in a place where the only climax is death and grief is only mimed.
Campbell Scott; photo: Sam Hough
Jessica Hecht and Becky Ann Baker; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Our Town runs through August 8 on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.