It's no wonder Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town is produced so much on an educational level. Deceptively simple, sumptuous in its metaphorical and literary poetry and brimming with deeper-than-they-appear characters, it's prime material for teaching students about character study and the power of less-is-more language and stagecraft.
Some 72 years later, Our Town remains a stunning achievement, ranking up there with Long Day's Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire as the best of American drama. To many, it outranks them, perhaps because it speaks more quietly, and with more profundity, about our lives, our country and the human condition at large.
It's too bad that many theatergoers are turned off by the thought of yet another production of Our Town, having seen dozens of mediocre, or worse, uninspired, productions of the Wilder masterpiece. Too many directors have approached the show as if staging the entire play like its third act, in which we see dead people in the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners, sitting in chairs, speaking expressionless. It might as well be called Our Mausoleum.
But don't let those experiences prevent a viewing of WaterTower Theatre's lovely production, directed by Terry Martin, who also plays the Stage Manager. (New York's Amy Anders Corcoran, who's directing WTT's next production of Circle Mirror Transformation, serves as assistant director, to keep Martin in check).
Wilder stressed in his suggestions for the director that it's important to maintain "a continual dryness of tone, the New England understatement of sentiment, of surprise, of tragedy." That doesn't mean the proceedings have to be so dry that it appears cracked, like an unearthed find from an archaeological dig.
Director Martin (and considering the circumstance, one assumes Corcoran), respects the playwright's wishes, but keeps things breezier than many productions achieve, keeping it fresh while not resorting to those tactics that often spell disaster for overly ambitious directors: deconstruction and reinvention.
A big part of the success is having a cast whose members are emotionally fearless but stay reined in for roles that are somewhat restricted. The four actors playing the parents of the play's two main families build solid foundations: Mary-Margaret Pyeatt and Stan Graner as the Webbs, and John Pszyk and especially Emily Scott Banks as Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs.
It's their children who make this production, though. As George Gibbs and Emily Webb, Joey Folsom and Maxey Whitehead take their characters from innocent flirting to an incredibly sweet and heartfelt conversation about love, and on to marriage and then tragedy, with effortless beauty. That Folsom can shed a tear without looking up as his father chides him, and that Whitehead can induce tears as she speaks as a dead person, speaks to their talent as actors, and also to the truths of Wilder's play.
Some of the ideas in this production—slight audience participation; Martin's casual, unstuffy performance as the Stage Manager; and tricks with the scenic design that both tribute Wilder's famous absence of scenery and hint at the potential for what it might be like the other way around—seem inspired by the acclaimed 2009 off-Broadway production from David Cromer, in which he directed and took on the Stage Manager role.
WaterTower's dynamic space offers a fantastic opportunity for set designer Clare Floyd DeVries to dispense with the play's original concept of ladders for the houses' second floors (which is probably more OSHA-friendly, anyway), and Michael Robinson's costumes mix the contemporary with touches of the period. At a few points, the actors create scenery (first-floor windows, a cross in the church) with live chalk drawings (reminiscent of Kevin Moriarty's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Dallas Theater Center last year). In another scene, smell is used as a sensory device to remind us of a certain place, and it works. These might be borrowed ideas, but the WaterTower gang makes it interesting.
With this production, Our Town seems more vital than ever. As a line in the script suggests, this play can serve as a document of how things were. But it's also a reminder that no matter how much changes in our world with technology and whatnot, it's the simple things—even that ones that are more complicated than we want them to be, such as love—that matter most.