The prospects looked grim during the Boston tryouts for Our Town. Business at the box office was poor, and puzzled Bostonians walked out during the performances. After all, there was no scenery to speak of: some chairs, a section of trellis and a ladder. Wilder’s dialogue seemed to be spun from the everyday conversations of common New England townsfolk.
The characters were plain and simple. A pipe-smoking stage manager served as host for the three act drama, divided thematically by Love, Marriage and Death. The play was simplicity itself: Two teenagers, George and Emily, fall in love, marry and face the inevitabilities of life and death. In between, breakfast is served, green beans are snapped, parents converse, and loved ones are mourned.
Original producer and director Jed Harris decided to bring the show to New York despite the cold Boston reception. After it opened at Henry Miller’s Theatre on February 4, 1938, the show’s fortunes changed. Critics composed valentines to Our Town and audiences clamored for tickets. The play moved to the Morosco Theatre, and ran for 336 performances.
Theatre historian and Playbill magazine archivist Louis Botto wrote in his diary at the time, “This is the best play I’ve ever seen.” The Pulitzer Prize Committee agreed and awarded Our Town the 1938 drama prize.
Today, the Thornton Wilder estate declares that somewhere in the world, Our Town is playing just about every night in high schools, community theatres or on professional stages.
To commemorate this American classic, Washington, D.C.’s historic Ford’s Theatre presents the official 75th Anniversary production of Our Town through February 24, 2013.
Director Stephen Rayne, who directed Parade, Sabrina Fair and the world premiere of The Heavens Are Hung in Black at Ford’s, returns to direct it.
Rayne’s goal is to honor the play and the playwright. “What I am trying to do with the production is to imagine how it would be presented on stage if Thornton Wilder were alive today.”
Many have misinterpreted Our Town as a sentimental slice of Americana with New England accents, he said. “That is about as far from Wilder wanted as could be.” There is a much broader picture to paint that goes beyond the small town setting.
“As Thornton Wilder told Jed Harris in 1938, this play is not really about Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It’s about humanity,” Rayne continued. “I think he was writing a play to speak to all times. It’s about the universality of common experience and the details of everyday life.”
Following Wilder’s vision of uncompromising, imaginative theatre, Rayne instructed his production team to stick closely to the play’s original intentions. “There are no sets, no props, and no costumes. We are doing this with as little as we possible can so that the audience can engage their own imagination in as big a way as possible.”
Rayne felt that Wilder would want the play to reflect the current time. The production team, Rayne, Tony Cisek (scenic), Kate Turner-Walker (costumes), and Pat Collins (lighting), avoided any specific social or historical context. “We tried to find a form of design for the production and costumes that is as anonymous as possible.”
For this 75th Anniversary production, Rayne has made Wilder’s characters more reflective of our time. “The cast is about 70 percent non-Caucasian,” he said, including Latino-American, Pacific Islander, Asian-American, Black and Caucasian. “I welcomed the diversity and cultural backgrounds all the actors have brought to the project. I think it gives a much richer representation of America today.”
Portia, an African-American actress, plays the Stage Manager. “In 1938, the stage manager probably would have been a 60 year-old white man in a suit,” Rayne offered. “But in 2013, stage managers are often young people, and there are a lot of female stage managers. I wanted to reflect what would be correct today.”
“We want people to experience the play without preconceptions,” Rayne said. The director mixed different races up for the families, in order to represent as broad a spectrum as possible. “We’re taking people out of thinking in traditional ways about the play.”
One such moment is when the Stage Manager talks about Civil War graves and slaves and the foundations of the United States of America. “Hearing that passage coming from an African-American woman, as opposed to an older, middle class white man has a very different impact on the audience.”
Closes February 24, 2013
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Even as he hopes the play will have new resonance, Rayne knows there’s a reason Our Town has prospered for 75 years. “The main themes – love, marriage, death – are common to all great drama.
Its subject matter is timeless. The fact that it’s still being done three quarters of a century later is a testament that it still speaks to audiences in the way it did in 1938.”
“Part of the reason I wanted to do the 75th Anniversary production is that it’s one of the great American classics,” Rayne concluded. “I want this play to last another 75 years.”
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Our Town, Ford’s Theatre hosts a series of additional events throughout February. Click here for more details.