Flavorwire Required Viewing: Our Town at Barrow Street Theater

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Photo by Carol Rosegg

Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager first appeared onstage in 1931. As the curtain rose on Pullman Car Hiawatha, he was drawing on the stage floor with a piece of chalk. “This is the plan of a Pullman Car. It’s name is Hiawatha and on December twenty-first it is on its way from New York to Chicago. Here at your left are three compartments. Here is the aisle and five lowers.” He continues. By locating the action on a moving train compartment, Wilder stripped his Stage Manager of any regional traits. Much to John Simon’s chagrin, this means no pipe, no New England accent, and no New England mannerisms.

Later that year, the Stage Manager appeared in another one-act, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, where he stood in for a number of minor characters: “He reads from a typescript … clearly, but with little attempt at characterization, scarcely troubling himself to alter his voice, even when he responds in the person of a child or a woman.” This sounds odd, until you imagine a casting director at an audition, listening to eager actors reading their sides and jumping in occasionally to read the other characters’ lines, clearly and indifferently. It’s an appropriate image; after all, a “Stage Manager” is just what we nowadays call a “Director.”

A few minutes after we took our seats at the Barrow Street Theatre (where Our Town is playing until September 27) a middle-aged man in shirtsleeves and jeans walked onstage, cell phone in hand. We thought he was a member of the house staff, about to ask us to turn our own phones off. Then he started speaking. “This play is called ‘Our Town.’ It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced by Scott Morfee, Jean Doumanian and Tom Wirtshafter and directed by David Cromer.” It was the Stage Manager, being played by director David Cromer. He was using his cell phone to check the time (“There! You can hear the 5:45 from Boston.”) just as the Stage Manager in the play’s 1938 premier would have used his pocket watch. There’s nothing affected about the phone, anymore than there was about the pocket watch seventy years ago ― just the most common timepiece of the day.

This minor prop choice is the first indication of Cromer’s very ambitious goal: restoring Our Town to its position as a modernist masterpiece. Wilder never set out to write a charming bit of Americana. Nearly two decades before writing Our Town, he attended the Rome premier of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and witnessed the moment when the curtain, the proscenium arch and the “fourth wall” were torn down, never to be restored. This, Wilder wrote, was the theater of “our time,” and his goal was to bring it to the American stage. As this production reminds us, he succeeded.

However, since Our Town premiered over seventy years ago, decades of high school productions have reduced it to a mawkish and melancholy period piece. Of course, it does take place in a rustic New Hampshire town called “Grover’s Corner”; it does depict young love and a tragically premature death; and it does contain “countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life.” (The Stage Manager even proposes putting a copy of the play into a time capsule, so that “people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us ― more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight.”) But Wilder viewed all of these things “sub specie aeternitatis,” and Cromer avoids any lapses into sentimentality. There are no accents or anachronisms here ― all the players wear contemporary, casual clothing, and they all speak in their own voices. (Though, excepting Cromer and Musical Director Jonathan Mastro’s Simon Stimson, the acting ranges from serviceable to poor.) More important are Michele Spadaro’s thoughtful and original set designs. The staging of that brief moment when Emily Gibbs returns to the living was revelatory, and it was an almost too-appropriate reminder of what this production is: a revival that actually resurrects a classic.