Elizabeth Audley, Jeremy Beiler, Robert Beitzel, Joy Besozzi, Kati Brazda, David Cromer, George Demas, Donna Jay Fulks, Jennifer Grace, Wilbur Edward Henry, Adam Hinkle, Dana Elizabeth Jacks, Ronete Levenson, Ken Marks, Jonathan Mastro, James McMenamin, Seamus Mulcahy, Lori Myers, Kathleen Peirce, Keith Perry, Jay Russell, Mark Shock, Jeff Still, Jason Yachanin
Even those who aren’t familiar with Thorton Wilder’s Our Town will likely feel at home at David Cromer’s new staging of the classic play, now playing at the Barrow Street Theatre downtown.
The play, which chronicles small-town life in the quiet New England town of Grover’s Corners, mostly follows the Webb and Gibbs families as they grow and change over the course of twelve years.
It’s an oft-performed play; several of its lines (“Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners. You get a good rest, too,” comes to mind) have crept into American pop culture. Somehow, however, Cromer, makes the play feel new despite its age.
Directing his street-clothes-clad cast, Cromer (who also plays the narrator – called the Stage Manager – while sporting New Balance sneakers on-stage) makes use of minimal scenery (tables, chairs, and a piano chosen by set designer Michele Spadaro), arranging the adaptable Barrow Street auditorium into a thrust configuration, the audience surrounding and encompassed within the playing space.
The effect of Cromer’s approach is both to bring us closer to and distance us from the proceedings. So much has changed, we think, since 1938, when the play was written, as we listen with suspicion to Mr. Webb’s advice on marriage. But by the harrowing third act, it’s clear that, really, very little has. It seems a bit simplistic on Cromer’s part to hope this concept will carry the weight he intends, but it’s mostly successful.
Regarding the actors, there are a number of sympathetic performances on stage. Jennifer Grace as Emily Webb is gangly and mawkish. James McMenamin makes a strapping George Gibbs. The couple’s physical appearances straddle the line between youth and adulthood, and their development over the course of the play feels fluid and natural.
There are also confident performances from Lori Myers and Jeff Still as the Gibbs elders and Ken Marks as Editor Webb. Cromer makes a confident, modern-sounding Stage Manager, acting as a sort of time-warped tour guide to Grover’s Corners, flipping his cell phone open periodically to note the time rather than checking his wristwatch.
The play, which is divided into three relatively brief acts, entitled “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Death and Loss,” no matter how much Cromer reinvigorates it, is ultimately rather benign material for this day and age. Wilder’s characters are fairly simplistic and are to a certain extent lacking in plausible conflicts. It’s during the play’s more impressionistic third act (which features an inescapable Smell-O-Vision moment) that the real merits of the play come to light, but even the cemetery scene and its no-one-ever-really-lives-while-they’re-living mentality is alternately inspiring and hackneyed. It’s been done before and since Our Town, and better.