Paul Newman, Maggie Lacey,and Ben Fox in Our Town(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Paul Newman, Maggie Lacey,
and Ben Fox in Our Town
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Reviewing Our Town is akin to reviewing the Holy Bible or The Joy of Cooking or Oedipus Rex. Like those other works, Thornton Wilder's 1938 play is sui generis, so perfect in its simplicity that any comment on it risks seeming superfluous. The work's iconic status is compounded by the fact that any production of it must be basic in the truest sense, presented with little or no scenery or props and acted by performers who don't feel it necessary to offer fresh, bold insights on Wilder's salt-of-the-earth characters. If any director ever brought to Our Town a post-modern "spin" or "concept," the result would be an unmitigated disaster and a betrayal of the author's intent. Fortunately, the new production of the play that has come to Broadway from the Westport Country Playhouse does no such thing.

As directed by James Naughton, Our Town startles anew with the universality that Wilder achieved in extolling the incomprehensible beauty of everyday life through his theatrical landscape of a small New Hampshire town at the beginning of the 20th century. It's interesting to note that, though the original Broadway production of the play opened in 1938, the action of Our Town is set decades earlier. With storm clouds of WWII gathering, Wilder probably felt that his audiences needed to be brought back to a simpler time. If he had been writing in 1890, he might have set the play in 1850, prior to the Civil War; and if he had been writing in 1800, he might have set it before the American Revolution. One of Our Town's many themes is that the past, seen through the haze of memory, almost always looks better than the present -- but the fundamental beauties and sorrows of life remain the same.

There's an intriguing paradox to Our Town. While the major point of the play is that we wretched human beings don't or can't fully appreciate the simple joys of our existence, some of the people in the play seem to do just that: Mrs. Gibbs loves her heliotrope, the townspeople are transfixed by the magic of the moonlight, and there are moments of deep, personal connection between various characters. This must have been intentional on Wilder's part. After all, if we really had no awareness of the wonders of the world that surround us, what would we lose when we die?

The new Town is virtually sold out for its limited run, in large part because it marks the return of film star Paul Newman to Broadway after an absence of many years. Newman offers what might be called a generic performance; most of his line readings are minimally inflected, as if he were trying to let Wilder's words speak entirely for themselves. In an attempt to have the man blend into the ensemble rather than set him up for a star turn, a major effort has been made in terms of blocking and lighting to prevent Newman's receiving entrance applause. (That effort fails.) Honestly, the same performance from an unknown actor would be unremarkable, but the performance plus the persona plus the history are quite remarkable.

Because of its universality, Our Town can accommodate actors working in several different styles. Thus, in the present production, Frank Converse's grand presence as Dr. Gibbs is as palatable as the more naturalistic playing of Jayne Atkinson as his wife, Jeffrey DeMunn as editor Webb, and Jane Curtin as Mrs. Webb. Jewel-like characterizations are provided by Jake Robards as Howie Newsome, Kristen Hahn as Rebecca Gibbs, John Braden

Paul Newman and Maggie Laceyin Our Town(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Paul Newman and Maggie Lacey
in Our Town
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
as Professor Willard, Stephen Mendillo as Constable Warren, and Mia Dillon as the gossipy Mrs. Soames, among others. Stephen Spinella, with his special brand of intensity, sticks out as the tortured choir director Simon Stimson -- exactly as he's supposed to.

This is an ensemble cast if there ever was one. That said, Maggie Lacey deserves special praise for her luminous performance as Emily Webb. Extraordinarily lovely in a natural, unadorned sort of way, the marvelous young actress clearly communicates every emotional transition of one of the finest, most elemental creatures in dramatic literature. She is superbly partnered by Ben Fox as a wonderfully callow, sweet, and empathetic George Gibbs.

With sets and costumes by Tony Walton and lighting by Richard Pilbrow, the production is as spare as it should be but with a couple of interesting design twists. Though the play is usually performed with the back wall of the theater exposed to the audience's view, this version features a painted backdrop that represents the back wall of the theater. And when the Stage Manager does his bit about the layout of Grover's Corner's, a map of the town comes down from the flies -- something I don't believe I've seen in any previous production of Our Town. Raymond D. Schilke's sound effects (a train whistle, a lawn mower, thunder, the clip-clop of a horse's hooves) add atmosphere.

Two hours before I saw the show, I was upset by an argument over an inconsequential matter. And during the final scene of the play, right around the time when Emily Webb Gibbs was bidding a heartbreaking goodbye to the world she has to leave forever, a cell phone in the rear orchestra section of the Booth Theatre began to ring. I'd like to think that all of those involved in such folderol -- myself included -- could hold fast to the life lessons that Our Town teaches, but I doubt it. Perhaps it's simple human nature that prevents us from stopping to smell the roses and the heliotrope, even in the aftermath of 9/11/01. Still, we should consider it a gift that this profound play is back on Broadway to remind us of what is important and what is not.