Archive for the ‘Thornton Wilder’ Category

Our Town

June 9th, 2008 No comments

I’ve just finished reading the article in American Theatre this month regarding Thorton Wilder’s) famous play.

The author of the article, Lori Ann Laster, begins the journey in her pre-teens inside her middle school gymnasium, with the broad statement: “Like many Americans…” I guess, I’m not in that group. I don’t know whether to feel gypped or not. I also don’t know why my all-American hometown, which it was—Fredericktown, Ohio—home of the FFA Jacket—failed to deliver on this one. I think I do feel gypped. Regardless, I digress into another small instance of my all-too-familiar penchant for simmering injustice. That is to say, I didn’t see the play in my pre-teens. In fact, I had no encounter with the play at all until 2007 at Cleveland Public Theatre—actually, that isn’t wholly true—my teacher and mentor, Mike Geither, virtually insisted to one class that we watch Spalding Gray in the video version, which I now have (but haven’t watched—maybe I’ll do that tonight)—but that really doesn’t count as that’s only hearing about the play, not experiencing it.

In reviewing my blog, I find that I did no review of that 2007 performance, which really shocks me. The performance was rated the “most lyrical staging” of 2007 by Scene and was, in fact, really stark and terrific for a host of reasons. Chris Seibert played the part of Emily Webb with a deep earnestness that I’ll not soon forget—and which sent me spiraling back to those terrible days of urgent adolescent yearning that were emotionally and, in certain places, physically painful. George Gibbs, played by Len Lieber, did an equally fantastic job in his earnest portrayal.

In reflecting on the piece I’ve had to dig about on he web. I found the one positive review above and then one negative review in the Free Times by James Damico, who must have some personal dislike of Bobgan as his review is so sharply hysterical. There must be some deep impulse to love Thorton Wilder’s) purely and some desire to be touched on his quivering breast by Wilder’s “superior intellect.” I, for one, was able to see beyond such shallowness as the casting and into the emotion of the piece and production; else Damico just likes create a certain high-pitched hysteria, as he clearly likes boasting and ego flashing: demonstrated by his cheap sarcasm obnoxiously brought to the fore by his unnecessary recitation of musical fodder regarding a hypothetical staging by Cleveland Orchestra of Pomp and Circumstance. As well, it’s clear; he couldn’t resist the inappropriateness of stirring in disgusting suggestions of pedophilia. In fact, it’s amazing how much sexual repression I’ve picked up on in so short a review as that by Mr. Damico; perhaps this observation points to the source of the high-pitched hysteria? It’s also nice and lovely to get Mr. Damico’s authentic praxis on how Our Town should be staged, complete with a recitation of pages 24-25 of his Our Town Staging Guide, 2nd Edition, on the “specific gravity” of the Stage Manager: because, God-knows both the “genuine and would-be” theater critic is the true knower of all things playwriting, play-building, and play-producing—(as demonstrated, no doubt, by the number of directing awards on his desk).

I since have found another negative review, though less prurient.

There was much physical movement in the production at CPT that included the use of chairs and ladders and a bare set. The movement of chairs, to my mind, was exceptional in that the movement very nearly effected what I would suggest as “camera angles” on the stage: one moment Emily was at stage right and George was at stage left, a quick few movements and all was reversed. For a “theater in the round” as was sort of instantiated at CPT for this play, I thought the “camera angles” were extraordinary and the movement gave a vitality to the piece. It also, for me, was in keeping with Bobgan and Seibert’s use of stools in their production of Caucasian Chalk Circle for STEP. I later learned, of course, that the starkness of the set, the chairs, and even the ladders were a part of Wilder’s directions. And, of course, learned that this was perhaps the crowning achievement of the piece—or one of them, certainly at the time it was written.

As the American Theatre article discusses, the stage in mid- to late-Thirties was “stuck” in trenchant “realism”—massive sets, the well-made play. As Laster writes:

A bare stage, no props, the use of mime, breaking the fourth wall, dismantling the unities of time and place—these were radically innovative devices that astounded audiences at the time when kitchen-sink realism dominated the serious stage, and boulevard comedies and melodrama proliferated…It was by removing the diversion of realistic clutter and tapping into the imagination of audiences that Wilder strove to make what was on the stage reflect the verities of life: “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in scenery.” 25

The CPT production shocked and stunned me, but more to the point perhaps, I was stunned by Wilder. I am still amazed at the effect of all the component parts put together in three acts led to that transcendence. The New York Times in 1938 wrote, “under the leisurely monotone of the production there is a fragment of immortal truth,” which still came through in 2007, demonstrating the power that Wilder cast up through his piece.

The article in American Theatre goes on to discuss the productions of Our Town at four theatres in the U.S. this year, and some in the past, including the variety of methods being used in the staging to re-create the production for modern audiences—all of which, of course, would be repellant to Mr. Damico, violating pages 1-5 of his Our Town Staging Guide, 2nd Edition, on the “purity of production values” and “reverence for superior intellects.” Of course, the use of bunraku-style puppets at Two River Theater Company would send Damico stark-raving mad and he’d no doubt rush the stage in a frothy-mouthed ecstasy screaming something about the trauma done to the “timeless nature of small-town existence” by the use of puppetry.

Laster ends her discussion of Our Town by drawing our attention to when it was written and what was happening in the world, and notes that a certain resurgence of the piece may be due to a similar impulse in our own time—a yearning for a simpler, more pure time in our American past—that small Grover’s Corners in our idyllic dream of America. Although the great grandson of Wilder is quoted speculating that Our Town is staged every night somewhere in America. How accurate that speculation is difficult to gauge.

An interesting commentary by Mike Harden in the Metro section of the Columbus Dispatch which I saw this weekend while visiting my parents drew another possibility, as one message of Our Town, certainly one drawn from Emily Webb’s visitation of her family after she had shuffled off her mortal coil, is to live life in the present, to not allow pettiness and selfish focus to cause you to overlook the wonderful life you have in front of you right now. A certain, strong, Buddhist metaphysics indeed.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, at least in passing, the similarity between Our Town and Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, both plays that draw as their subject the life of a town and its inhabitants. Perhaps sometime I’ll discuss this one a bit more as Geither turned me on to it and I found Thomas’ piece equally as compelling as Wilder’s.

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