Seventy-one years ago, Thornton Wilder made theatrical history by insisting that his new play Our Town be presented on an unadorned stage and with few props of the basic wooden table, chair and kitchen utensils variety. He didn’t go so far as to request that the three-act play devoted to presenting turn-of-the-20th-century Americana as universal human experience be performed with the audience sitting on three sides of it, and therefore be more or less in it, but that’s exactly what director David Cromer has done quite beautifully in his production of Our Town now at the Barrow Street Theatre.
In fact, Cromer has accomplished so much on a floor-level playing area with Wilder’s poetically quotidian story about life in Grover’s Corners that his eventually consigning a sequence in the devastating third act to something more closely resembling a realistic scene in a proscenium setting ends up seeming like a surprisingly misguided notion.
On the plus side, he has asked lighting designer Heather Gilbert not to turn the house lights down but only to dim them somewhat from act to act, and seen to it that costume designer Alison Siple dresses the cast in contemporary street clothes so that his message about the audience being the cast and the cast being the audience is indisputably driven home.
Significantly, Cromer has also tapped himself to be Wilder’s famous Stage Manager — which may be why he delivers the lines with the inflections of a director on the first day of rehearsal explaining to his cast what he’s after. As for the rest of the cast, the standouts in a contingent of stand-outs are Lori Myers as Mrs. Gibbs, Kati Brazda as Mrs. Webb, Jeff Still as Dr. Gibbs, James McMenamin as George Gibbs, Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb, Ken Marks as Mr. Webb, and Jonathan Mastro (also the production’s musical director and composer) as choirmaster and town drunk Simon Stimson.
For those who want to know the problem afflicting the third act, wherein just-deceased Emily decides against the advice of her fellow cemetery occupants to relive her 12th birthday, read ahead. Suddenly, Cromer reveals a realistic kitchen with an actual stove on which Mother Webb prepares actual bacon — the potent aroma of which permeates the small-ish Barrow Street Theatre auditorium. And if my ears don’t deceive me, players who heretofore had wisely never affected New England accents have an unconvincing go at them.
Moreover, at this point, Grace, who’s been a touchingly no-nonsense Emily, becomes so hysterical she manages to vitiate the power of perhaps the most poignantly angry speech ever composed for an American play. But, these issues aside, Cromer still makes the case for Our Town as one of the three or four most important experimental advances in American theater-writing.