Matthew Burnett's play is untrue to the spirit of Thornton Wilder's novel, but Carl Forsman's beautiful production nevertheless casts a spell.
In the novel -- a self-proclaimed autobiographical exercise published when Wilder was 76 -- it's the summer of 1926. The title character arrives in Newport, Rhode Island after quitting his teaching position at a New Jersey preparatory institution. (Wilder taught at Lawrenceville Prep for a couple years.) Uncertain about what he wants to do with the rest of his life, North fast becomes assured about how he wants to spend his time in the rich and varied community where the jalopy that got him there broke down.
Accepting positions as a tennis coach, French mentor, and a reader, he also takes on a series of problems that a number of locals face. He instinctively knows how to find agreeable solutions for those troubled by, among other predicaments, family pressures, anti-social behavior, and ill-advised romantic associations. He's confident he can achieve his ends by ingenious planning, and, if necessary, by hook or crook. In short, Theophilus North is a manifestation of that literary staple, The Unstoppable Life Force. Absolute conviction about its existence is something the irrepressible Wilder consistently promoted in his work.
In transferring Theophilus to the stage, Burnett has apparently decided that the young man's self-possession is fine on the printed page but undramatic when catapulted into three dimensions. His solution is to strip Theophilus of his lovable -- and, as Wilder has it, often funny -- sangfroid. Burnett's hero now has a dramatic arc that follows his progression from aimless wanderer towards young man beginning to have glimmers of what he'll do once he completes his Newport duties. That solution is something he comes upon at the very end of his stay -- and it is actually Burnett's finest Wilder-like moment.
Burnett and Forsman have certainly gotten the look of the production right. Beowulf Boritt's set is minimal and a commendable bow to the Wilder of Our Town. It features a stationery bicycle (for Theophilus), a wooden riser, a couple of chairs, a bench, and a backdrop of clouds in a blue sky. Hewing to Wilder's notion of theater retaining a reminder that it's theater, Burnett has also structured the piece so that a seven-actor troupe portray all the myriad characters who populate Wilder's boisterous book.
Six of the performers accessorizing and re-accessorizing the basic period costumes that Theresa Squires has assembled are Margaret Daly, Joe Delafield, Brian Hutchison, Virginia Kull, Geddeth Smith, and Regan Thompson. Not only do they appear as the Newport citizens among whom Theophilus does his immeasurably helpful thing, but they also speak as sections of the town, a park, and a lighthouse, to name only a few. To a man and woman, they acquit their assignments with a mixture of Wilderesque sobriety and esprit. The late author would undoubtedly have tipped his boater to them.