“Our Town" at Virginia Stage Company is a wonderful play to visit
“Our Town” is the kind of town where you can hear the rooster crow at dawn.
The drugstore doubles as a social center. There are churches of multiple denominations, with the Baptists down by the river. The closest thing to a scandal is that the church organist drinks a little.
As a true chestnut of American theater, “Our Town” is about as familiar as an American play could be. Among the many variations of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winner are its three revivals on Broadway, including one in 1988 with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager; a 1940 movie nominated as best picture; a 1955 TV musical starring Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint and Newman as George Gibbs; and a 2003 Masterpiece Theatre version, with Newman as the Stage Manager.
It is one of the most-produced plays in American theater history, particularly in high schools. At Roanoke Rapids High School, I played the Stage Manager. The performance is best forgotten and I’m deeply thankful that cellphones had not yet been invented, but it revealed the magic of theater.
The former Harriet Bloom, now of Virginia Beach, whose father ran Bloom’s Department Store in Roanoke Rapids, also was in that cast, and also attended opening night at the new Virginia Stage Company production. We winced to recall that ours was perhaps the most “Southern” of “Our Towns” – no matter that it is set in Grover’s Corners, N.H., from 1901 to 1913.
The venerable play tends to stir up such memories. It is still relevant as a piece of Americana. Though the curtain speech at VSC suggested that it’s “because of our troubled times,” it may well be because of our sometimes desperate attempts to find an identity that supplants the arrogant pomposity of our urban vs. rural debates.
Chris Hanna’s finely tuned and thoughtful production treads where others have feared to go in recent professional theater – unafraid of the relentless smallness of it all. The pacing is at odds with the outside world – a world where everyone is in a rush, particularly a rush to judge others. Audiences accustomed to television editing will bail out of a show if something doesn’t “happen” in the first three minutes.
“Our Town” concerns big things – life, marriage and death – but does so at a slow pace. It’s the pace at which things, for the most part, happen in life. Audiences might squirm, and some may even rebel.
Be that as it may, the final act has a great deal to say about death and what it means.
Thornton Wilder, who wrote this work more as poetry than plot, introduces to us the idea that those in death may have a hard time adjusting – the same as those who are left alive. It’s an intriguing idea, and ever relevant.
Hanna, the former longtime director of VSC, has regularly interpreted the works of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and done so with reverence and care.
(Best forgotten is his production of “Hedda Gabler.”)
“Our Town” is famous for its lack of staging. Usually, a bare stage stands in for the town. Here, as designed by Narelle Sissons, there is a bit more, visually — but to little purpose.
The decision to remodel the theater so that a portion of the audience sits on the stage was, one supposes, an effort to suggest more “intimacy” or “participation.” It seems more a distraction, and it certainly allows half the audience to stare at the other half – and wonder what they are thinking. The actors are stuck in the middle.
Ellen Harvey as the Stage Manager, who is also the narrator, brings a sonorous, well-timed and altogether professional presence to the play’s center.
The casting of a woman as the narrator is nothing new, but it does jostle the traditional view of the Stage Manager as a wizened, local veteran sharing his knowledge of the town folk. He knows them better than anyone, and we must, above all, feel comfortable with his knowledge. Harvey suggests admiration of and loyalty to the townspeople, but seems more like a big city visitor from a later generation.
As the two lovers, Emily and George, Missy Dowse and Justin Keyes lack the chemistry and innocence to break our hearts, but it is a tough assignment to play two of the most natural and loved lovers of all theater. They serve – just barely.
The rest of the cast, particularly the two sets of in-laws, bring a folksy mood that is never precious, and that is an accomplishment.
J.C. Nigh’s sound design, particularly for the other-worldly last act, is an accomplishment of stagecraft.
Some will find it slow. But even after 80 years, Grover’s Corners provides hope. It is a play about hope – the hope for a simple life in a less stressful time. It behooves us at least to try to understand those times and those universal hopes.
Yes, it is dated and maybe it never really existed. But it still is our town and it was a brave move to include it in this company’s 40th season.