Professor Donald Haberman nails the "unique problem" with Thornton Wilder's Our Town in his Our Town: An American Play: "It is performed too often. ... Almost every American has seen a school performance, and the few who have not have probably formed an opinion about Our Town from bad reports of school performances ... everybody thinks he knows Our Town, and what he knows is that the play is for kids." Which might make the idea of the current Jonathan Moscone-helmed production at the Berkeley Rep all the more mysterious to audiences who think of the play as juvenile. Moscone is known for doing modern and sometimes uncomfortable things with Shakespeare over at CalShakes, where he is the artistic director. Meanwhile the Rep has a (largely undeserved) reputation for putting naked people onstage and otherwise transgressing against propriety (overheard last year in the bathroom of the Douglas Morrison Theatre in Hayward: "I gave up my Rep subscription because everything they were doing was gay. "). But Our Town, which netted Berkeley High graduate Wilder the first of three Pulitzers, is much more interesting than its reputation suggests, especially in a version that manages to be meditative and not maudlin, gentle and profound.
While it's not so obvious now, in an age where theater takes so many forms, Our Town was an anomaly when it was first produced. In 1938, theatergoers were used to glitzy musicals, not a bare stage peopled with characters who pantomimed breakfast and baseball according to a Stage Manager (here the venerable Barbara Oliver, warm but firm) who regularly interjected, spoke directly to the audience, and reeled off statistics. The paperboy brothers winding up their knockout pitches, a wedding, a funeral, a dead woman allowed to revisit her twelfth birthday ... all these things have the same weight in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, a town that hasn't produced anyone remarkable that anyone can think of. Which startled audiences used to something grander and more predictable.
The deceptively simple story of Grover's Corners and its inhabitants was Wilder's exploration of philosophical and theatrical concepts he'd been pondering through his European travels and classical education. A close friend of Gertrude Stein and a careful reader of Shaw, Proust, Pirandello, and Goethe, Wilder tried to use theatrical strangeness to express eternal truths. Stein's fingerprints are all over Our Town, just as Wilder's influences can be seen in Stein's Lectures in America; Wilder was fascinated with Stein's ideas about individualism and human nature. To that end he played with structure, time, and characterization. It's no accident that the Gibbses and the Webbs have such similar names, a fact that trips up actors, or that the only difference between their two gardens are heliotrope in one and sunflowers in the other. As he told Stein, Wilder was trying to get across that people are basically the same by giving them similar actions and speech patterns. They're more archetypal than they are individual, a point Moscone gets across nicely in a bit of blocking early on with the two mothers unintentionally mirroring each other during the breakfast scene.
Neil Patel's set is elaborate by Our Town standards: The first two acts take place in a dreamy blue box with one high window through which we can see a giant moon or Magrittesque umbrella, beaded with rain. There are kitchen tables, a piano, pots and pans and glasses, the highboy Mrs. Gibbs is thinking about selling. Between the second and third acts, the box containing the lives of the townspeople is lifted to reveal dark piles of gravel around the graveyard, piles that have been clearly visible around the edges of the set, as visible yet unremarked-upon as our own mortality. The transition is a striking one, from blues and earth tones under Scott Zielinski's golden light, to black and white picked out with cool, bluish light.
The acting evokes, if not a simpler time, one where much was left unsaid that would be hollered from the rooftops today. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb have been neighbors for a dozen years, yet still have a certain formality as they talk, one that falls away as they sing together, marking time with their string beans. Likewise everyone in town knows church choir director Simon Stimson (a surly, muffled Ken Ruta) is an alcoholic, and they gossip about it, yet they can't offer him the comfort that might stop him from killing himself. If these people could reach out to each other more, could break through their self-imposed isolation, what might become of them? Wilder thought the human condition an inherently lonely one, yet this isn't sad or tragic -- it just is.
The play is fun, too. Jarion Monroe is delightful as always, this time as a pop-eyed professor telling us everything we need to know about Grover's Corners, starting with the Pleistocene epoch. His tale is acted out by the kids in the cast in an inspired bit of stage movement as they represent shale, fossils, and the Ascent of Man. Bill Heck is a highly physical, gangly George next to Emma Roberts' graceful, upright Emily, and the two carry the childhood friendship into the adult marriage sweetly and with convincing awkwardness. The end of their marriage scene is haunting, with the newlyweds -- and Simon -- the only things moving, and everyone else frozen into a tableau. The cast is solid, from the two sixth graders (Trevor Cheitlin has great projection for his age, or any age) on up to the mothers and fathers and Oliver.
At first glance, Our Town might seem to fall into the nostalgia trap, with its soda fountain and unlocked doors. But Wilder was going for something deeper. This is a quintessentially American town, yes, and things may be simpler -- Emily has no need to worry that George has slipped a roofie into her strawberry phosphate -- but people's problems, their sadness and loss and occasional despair, affect them just as deeply. Women die in childbirth, people drink too much and kill themselves, and others dream of things they want that never come to pass. But in the Rep production, these individual lives juxtaposed against the larger cycles of community and nature take on a certain dignity and loveliness.
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