It took Olney Theatre, surprisingly, 80 seasons to get around to Thornton Wilder’s iconic Our Town, and with acclaimed director Aaron Posner at the helm, they tackle the challenge of what this admittedly overproduced and arguably misunderstood play has to say to a contemporary multi-cultural audience, and how best to reach them. Perhaps that challenge is a reason Olney hasn’t visited Grovers Corners until now.
If the play itself has a fault, it’s that its rural New Hampshire setting is a barrier to the universality of its theme. It creates a trap that most theatres plunge headlong into, and too often becomes a play about small town Americana at the dawn of the 20th century, steeped in blissfully ignorant nostalgia, Disney-influenced sentimentality and Norman Rockwell idealism. Most contemporary professional productions pay lip service to Wilder’s romantic minimalism, going through great expense and effort to create an illusory bare stage.
Posner is all too aware of this honey trap, and that in a contemporary theatre scene that has finally started to figure out that onstage diversity and representation (shock!) matters, a key to unlocking the play’s universality is to create a Grovers Corners that looks more like its audience. Or at least, its intended audience. The press night audience, mainly cast members’ families, press and major donors, might not be the best gauge of success.
Posner shocks us into seeing the play anew in welcome ways. The most iconic and traditional element of the play, George and Emily’s ladders, are done away with (making, alas, a liar out of the poster art), but the traditions of pantomiming action and props, and providing live ‘foley’ sounds effects are strictly observed.
Misha Kachman’s set however largely eschews precedent by creating a traverse staging with abstracted versions of the Gibbs and Webb households on either side. Both houses and the stage floor are decked with a mosaic of bare wood from birch to mahogany, evoking an pallette of tones that reflects the diversity of the ensemble. Helen Huang’s costumes are evocative of the time period but with modern fabrics and brighter colors.
Posner also frees the production from its turn-of-the-century New Hampshire trappings. There is no regional Yankee dialect; in fact the only dialects are ethnically specific and limited to puppet characters; Howie Newsome is Hispanic, Mrs Soames and the Constable are African-American, and overall the human performers face a challenge in smoothing over a Yankee twang that is frequently written into the script. The incongruity of the occasional “twas” or “ain’t” in an otherwise contemporary American dialect can distract.
Olney Artistic Associate Jon Hudson Odom is equal parts narrator and showman as the Stage Manager, our guide through the three acts, with a lively, physically nimble performance, including a subtle but powerful reference to contemporary issues in Act III that might drive our current Vice President out of the theatre.
William Vaughan and Cindy De La Cruz have a sweet chemistry as George and Emily, particularly in their first scene together. Megan Anderson and Andrea Harris Smith are strong and formidable mothers, Todd Scofield and Tony Nam are wise and subtle fathers.
closes November 12, 2017
Details and tickets
With a production focusing on puppets, ironically the strongest moments are the human ones – the cacophony of getting the kids off to school in the morning, Mr Gibbs’s lecture to George, the warmth and occasional disconnect between both sets of parents, the pre-wedding anxiety of parents, bride and groom, the comically awkward interchange between George and his future father-in-law.
The puppets, designed by Aaron Cromie, are billed as the chief innovation of this production; though the seven human cast members play the principals and the puppets are relegated to the supporting characters. They do lend a level of added theatricality, and provide the production’s most moving moment at the top of Act III (I won’t spoil it).
The puppet characters are played with a broadness that contrasts sharply from the more understated human performers; the chief culprit is the shamelessly scene-stealing Professor Willard. What a ham.
The puppets may not be a transcendent element, but the play is more self-contained with their presence. If not for the loss of a dozen job opportunities for struggling actors, I wouldn’t protest if this becomes the fashionable way to do Our Town going forward.
If not revelatory, this is nonetheless a very effective Our Town, standing on its own and asserting an independence from traditional staging, casting and performance style while preserving the essence of Wilder’s themes. It’s Our Town with a new haircut and a bright new suit of clothes, but it’s still Our Town.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder, directed by Aaron Posner, with Megan Anderson, Cindy De La Cruz, Tony Nam, Jon Hudson Odom, Todd Scofield, Andrea Harris Smith and William Vaughan. Scenic Design: Misha Kachman. Lighting Design: Thom Weaver. Costume Designer: Helen Q Huang. Sound Design: Sarah O’Halloran. Puppet Design: Aaron Cromie. Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva. Produced by Olney Theatre Center. Review by John Geoffrion.
[for the record, I was an understudy in a Posner-directed production in 2009]