Saturday, January 28, 2012

Our Town is Everyone's Town at The Broad Stage

Helen Hunt  in David Cromer's Our Town
Photo: Iris Schneider

Though not a musical, I highly recommend David Cromer’s Our Town, starring Helen Hunt as stage manager, currently running at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Mention Thornton Wilder’s play to almost anyone and chances are they have read it, seen it, done it, or know someone who’s done it, and they’ll certainly have an opinion about it. My first experience with it was in grade school watching the older kids present it in the school basement. We didn’t have a wide range of artistic productions in my small town but we did have teachers who cared enough to expose us to as much as they could.

These were golden moments when we were able to escape our regular class routine and watch a live performance, and oh how we loved them. Even at that early age we somehow understood that days weren’t meant to be taken for granted; a theme that hovers quietly behind the bustling activity of Our Town. No, that comes later when youthful exuberance gives way to adult practicality. Earning a living, raising a family, and making something of our lives all too often blinds us to the inevitability that a day will come when our time is up. If you haven’t made the most of it by then you’re out of luck because life isn’t a rehearsal. For good or bad, it’s all we have.

Efficient is the word that comes to mind when thinking about David Cromer’s Our Town in its current iteration at The Broad Stage. Previously a hit off-Broadway and in Chicago, its power lies in its simplicity, its compactness, that reveals a heartbreaking truth about life but in a way that doesn’t play to cloying sentimentality.

Cromer honors Wilder’s intention that the play be performed with no set, very little scenery and minimal props. A few chairs, tables, school books and green beans to be snapped are about all you’ll find on a stage that was specially constructed on top of the existing seats in The Broad’s auditorium, in effect creating a brand new “black box” where there was nothing but air before.

The audience sits on three sides of the playing area and quickly become part of the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners. Actors enter and exit at the corners of the rectangular room, and use the space between the first row of seating and the bleachers as sidewalks through town. Kids race to school, a drunken Simon Stimson (Jonathan Mastro) borders on the edge of an explosion, and George (James McMenamin) and Emily (Jennifer Grace) play out a significant moment in their courtship in this 3-foot wide walkway that could be anytown USA.

Told in three acts with two intermissions – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, & Death and Eternity – it’s the first time I was surprised when we reached the end of an act. Too often the play feels endless, but not at The Broad. Each act seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it is because there is so much to take in, even in its simplicity. The house lights remain up through most of the show and with actors so close to the audience there is always someone within a few feet to study close up. It’s fascinating to watch stage manager Helen Hunt, for example, as she watches the action. You can read a thousand thoughts in her eyes.

Almost every other stage manager I’ve seen in Our Town has been an older, kindly, meandering, gray-haired gentleman smoking a pipe that I’m sorry to say makes me just want to tune out after awhile. Not so with Hunt. Fully present and quietly determined, she orchestrates the action with precision and an inner strength of purpose that directs not only the actors but we in the audience as well. When she describes the beauty of the last bright glow of the morning star before it goes down behind the mountain, we feel it. When she mentions a rooster crowing at daybreak, we hear it. And when she describes the town itself, from the Congregational Church to the jail in the basement of the Town Hall/Post Office building, to Polish town across the tracks, we see it.

Much of the original cast returns to Cromer’s production, supplemented by local actors who collectively create an outstanding ensemble. And the spectacular final scene in which Emily returns for one more ordinary day on earth is one quite extraordinary surprise. Don’t miss Our Town. which runs through February 12 at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Click Here for tickets and more information.

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