nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 22, 2009
All that this review should say is: see David Cromer's production of Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre.
I have loved this play for 30-some years, and I feel privileged to have seen, here, a production that seems to do it complete justice. Cromer's vision of Thornton Wilder's play—now more than 70 years old—is as straightforward, spare, and unsentimental as I could ever have hoped for. Nothing is imposed on the piece, although some surprising re-envisioning here and there has clarified and honed some of the themes in ways that feel miraculous for their pure simplicity. This Our Town issues jolt after jolt of human recognition, and has a cumulative power that, to my mind, is unmatched by anything currently on stage in NYC.
Cromer himself takes the role of Stage Manager, and he takes the title fairly literally, walking through the theatre casually attired in jeans and a plaid shirt, with a pen behind his ear, guiding us through Wilder's play and calling out and then dismissing the actors as he needs them to enact the parts of the story that need enacting. There's a little bit of scenery on the stage when we take our seats: two dining room sets, representing the houses of the two families who are Our Town's leading characters. Closest to the audience is the Gibbs home, where Doctor Gibbs, his wife Julia, and their two children George and Rebecca "live"; nearer to the exit is the Webbs' place, occupied by newspaper editor Charles Webb, his wife Myrtle, and their children Emily and Wally. The play happens here, in the middle of the room (surrounded on three sides by the audience), and throughout the entire space—in the balcony, in the aisles, on the stairs.
Our Town, as you may know, unfolds in three acts; the Stage Manager explains them to us midway through Act II: "The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There's another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that's about." Our Town takes place in the first decade of the 20th century, in a small sturdy New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners. Wilder juxtaposes the most commonplace of occurrences—kids doing homework, a church choir practice, a wedding—with reflections on the infinitude of the universe, the relentless progression of time, and the ephemeralness of everything that's human. A particular favorite passage from the end of the first act—a very famous one, I think—sums up much of what the play trades in. Rebecca, a schoolgirl, tells her older brother about a letter sent to one of her friends:
REBECCA: He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this. It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE: What's funny about that?
REBECCA: But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God—that's what it said on the envelope.
GEORGE: What do you know!
REBECCA: And the postman brought it just the same.
Two dozen actors (including Cromer) bring Wilder's extraordinary creation to life, all of them superb. Lori Myers's Mrs. Gibbs made me catch my breath on her very first line—she reveals, ineffably, a great deal about Julia Gibbs, the people of Grover's Corners, and more generally all people everywhere as she calls out to her children to come down to breakfast. Jennifer Grace and James McMenamin play Emily and George, whose story is the main one told in Our Town; they are convincingly teenagers through most of the play, and Grace conveys the very different tone of the play's final act most affectingly. Others among the company who particularly registered with me include Ken Marks as Editor Webb, Jonathan Mastro as Simon Stimson, the church choirmaster, and Donna Jay Fulks as busybody Mrs. Soames. But this entire ensemble works together beautifully, and each of its members deserves the highest praise.
Cromer's collaborators in designing the piece likewise are to be congratulated for the simplicity and honesty of their work. The lighting is by Heather Gilbert and the music by Mastro; their work is of a piece with Cromer's gorgeous vision. Michele Spadaro's set design will surprise you; that's all I will say about it. And the costumes by Alison Siple address the period of the piece and its timelessness with elegance and wit.
Of all the questions humankind can ever pose, the hardest is probably "Why?" Thornton Wilder, channeled here so brilliantly by David Cromer, can't answer that definitively, of course, but he helps us toward a deeper appreciation of some of the parts of the answer in Our Town. And, experiencing this incomparable work of theatre,we are moved, and perhaps we are better for it.