BWW Reviews: A Fun, Faithful OUR TOWN at the NJ Shakespeare Theatre
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of Our Town, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has offered a faithful and finely-worked rendition of Thornton Wilder's beloved play. This is a very standard-issue version of Our Town-no interpretive frills, no turns of staging that Wilder himself couldn't have foreseen. But objecting to a standard Our Town is like objecting to a standard apple pie or a standard gray suit. Who cares if it's conservative, so long as it's put together gracefully? What director Joseph Discher and his cast have devised is a well-calibrated performance that honors Wilder's intentions simply by proceeding at a fine clip through Wilder's script. Again, there aren't any wild interpretive touches-but there isn't any "75th Anniversary" commemorative rigmarole either. Just a crisp, satisfying performance.
Yet for anyone who knows Our Town mainly from some other context-the 1940 movie version, drama classes, pure hearsay-Discher's production is an eye-opening demonstration of how well-fashioned Wilder's script is. History has been much kinder to other American authors than it has to Wilder: as a dramatist, he's had to live in the shadow of the Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams triumvirate. While it may not revolutionize Wilder's reputation, the Shakespeare Theatre's Our Town underscores the virtuosic versatility Wilder's play-sometimes warm, sometimes caustic, sometimes ringing with tough wisdom.
Each act of Wilder's play follows a phase in the life of Grover's Corners, a bucolic New Hampshire town of roughly 3000 people. Act I surveys one ordinary day in 1901, introducing the audience to a full gallery of characters-fond fathers, doting mothers, one terminally inebriated choirmaster (Mark H. Dold), and two spunky teenagers named George and Emily (Jordan Coughtry and Nisi Sturgis, a real-life married couple). Act II examines George and Emily's budding romance and eventual marriage; Act III, the passage of time and the deaths of some important townspeople.
This is a lot to handle, and your imagination has to handle some of it. Wilder's stage properties are minimalistic, but they don't seem paltry or insufficient in this production-Charlie Calvert's stage design uses a brick backdrop that works much better than some of the blank backgrounds I have seen. (It's meant to recall an unadorned theater, but it has the nice effect of evoking the old-fashioned architecture-sturdy, homely, some of it brick-that we associate with older eras.) We also have a guide to the various stages of life in Grover's Corners: the Our Town Stage Manager, here played by Philip Goodwin with wide-open folksiness and bottled-up cynicism.
Though Goodwin gives a winning performance, he doesn't steal the show. Our Town is very much an actors' drama-which may explain why it's such a favorite in high schools and why (according to the program) "Our Town is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country." Picking the most poignant character in Our Town-George's strong yet disillusioned mother (Marion Adler)? Emily's particular yet affectionate father (James Michael Reilly)? that sad-sack choirmaster?-is as hard as picking the funniest character on The Simpsons. And don't take my comparison to The Simpsons as an insult; in fact, Discher and his actors use humor, plenty of humor, for the sake of social critique. They'd be right at home in Springfield.
In this Our Town, performances with gravitas are a rare commodity. There are a few exceptions-particularly among the beyond-the-grave townspeople-but on the whole the inhabitants of Grover's Corners are a finicky and silly group. This results in some very funny exchanges. (Reilly, who has appeared in a variety of comic roles at the Shakespeare Theatre, is at his best when delivering hokey factoids and questionable advice.) However, you can also see this silliness as a critique of the town's provincialism and complacency. Grover's Corners can create conscientious parents and responsible children, but it has yet to create a real mensch.
This less-than-flattering view of decades gone by may seem odd to 21st-century viewers. After all, we're accustomed to shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire telling us that past generations were bolder, braver, and a whole lot sexier. Our Town has a different lesson for contemporary viewers-namely, that a meaningful and exhilarating life can be a matter of perspective, not of lucky time or place. When Wilder created the play, he attempted to "find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life." I'm not sure that I (or Samuel Beckett, or Edward Albee) would agree; after all, can't "the smallest events in our daily life" just be meaningless? But that's the point here. The Shakespeare Theatre has created an Our Town worth discussing and debating-not because it's an off-the-wall production, but because Wilder's ideas still elicit discussion and debate. And still will, 75 years from now.
Photo Credit: ©Gerry Goodstein, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey