IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN
by Harvey Perr
published March 6, 2009
now playing Off Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater
There are some works so deeply rooted in the American grain that time can never erode that particular quality – the sensation that
only in America could the work have evolved, that only those who were born and bred here could
fully recognize what makes it so uniquely ours. I think of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn or Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler or Mary
Cassatt’s paintings, and, in the theater, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is that standard bearer. In
the seventy-odd years since it was written, there may have been greater plays, but there has never been another that could honestly call
itself the quintessential American play. And I have never seen a production of this play – and I’ve seen many and not all of them memorable
– that stopped me from remembering that simple fact. But when a truly extraordinary production comes along – and The Hypocrites Theatre
production from Chicago is just that – it not only drives us, as theatergoers, out of our seats cheering, it makes us feel, as Americans, a
little prouder of who we are.
The play is such a model of simplicity, it is not always easy to grasp at its many complexities. In three acts, a stage manager in
a theater bereft of sets takes us first through a day in the life of a New Hampshire hamlet called Grovers Corners, followed by a section
called Love and Marriage in which the two kids – George Gibbs and Emily Webb – of the first act get married after showing us the moment
they fell in love, and a third act, which could be titled Death, dealing as it does with what the grim reaper eventually brings to all of
our lives (and as the stage manager pretty much warns us to expect). That’s all there is to it, except for a sense of detail that is subtly
and cannily observed, and for its little loving stabs at characterization that add up, upon reflection, to fully realized characters. It
has its darker moments, to be sure, but a certain gentleness always clings to it, and even, in the end, when it becomes harrowing, one
might say it is gently harrowing.
The Barrow Street Theatre has been renovated to accommodate this production which has been meticulously directed by David Cromer
(who was responsible for last season’s memorable Adding Machine, also from Chicago) and, as a
result, the entire space becomes the empty theater and the audience is thrust right into the action and the heart of the play. The overhead
lights dim a bit from act to act but there is nothing fancier than that in the way of lighting. The actors do not wear period costumes and
are indistinguishable from the members of the audience. This, then, is a true shared experience.
Director Cromer plays the stage manager himself (and a dryer and brisker stage manager cannot be imagined), adding to the sense
that play and production and audience involvement are inseparable, all part of what theater practitioners like to call “process.” In the
theater, a single moment can change forever how we look at a play and, in this production, such a moment arises when the town drunk, church
organist Simon Stimson, is confronted by Mr. Webb, and just stands still, without saying a word, for the longest of minutes, before going his way. What
eventually happens to Mr. Stimson (if there is anyone reading this who doesn’t know the play) is suggested in this moment in such a way as
to observe first hand the nature of true aloneness. It should be said right about now that all the acting is quite good, and that Jeff
Still as Dr. Gibbs and Ken Marks as Mr. Webb, the newspaper editor, are particularly strong. And the naturalness of James McMenamin as
George is borne of strong acting technique and it would be surprising if McMenamin’s name is not mentioned whenever one talks about the most promising young actors of the next decade.
The other touch new to this production is a coup de theatre in the third act that is better left to be experienced. It should be
noted however that one’s sense of what evokes memory in the theater, as well as in our lives, may be redefined by that singular sensation.
And Emily’s anger recalls Dylan Thomas’s raging against the dying of the light, which alters, in fascinating ways, her final speech in
which she says goodbye to Grover’s Corners. Our Town is a great play, and this is surely one of
the best productions of the play; it serves to snap the fact of its greatness to our full attention.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com