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The Way We Were

by Kathryn Geurin on August 4, 2010

Our Town
By Thorton Wilder, directed by Nicholas Martin Williamstown Theatre Festival, through Aug. 8

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Our Town is a play about simplicity. Simple words about simple people drifting through the simple acts of their daily living. And it’s a play about significance—about the import of those simple acts, about the poetry and beauty and vitality in the sum of life’s most humble moments.
Thorton Wilder’s script is set in the 1930s in fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H., a quintessential small town, certainly not unlike Williamstown itself. The play’s language and setting are spare, and its metatheatrical minimalism has led Our Town to be common fodder on high school and community stages. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, incontestably groundbreaking in its day, is often mistaken as a sentimental old chestnut, nostalgic for days long gone. “This is the way we were,” the script explains, “in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

But the current and beautifully understated treatment at Williamstown Theater Festival (helmed by WTF artistic director Nicholas Martin in his last directorial hurrah before his departure), is a wholly poetic argument for Our Town’s enduring relevance.

The audience is greeted by David Korins’ brilliant set, an airy framework of farm tables, ladders and chairs in warm wood, from which elements of the Spartan scenery are drawn and replaced. The symbolism is gentle and fitting: The fabric of our days is supported by the structure of our history and our ancestors, by every unremarkable breakfast conversation of every ordinary Joe stretching back ad infinitum.

Illuminated from shifting angles by the warm glow and quiet stillness of Kenneth Posner’s dawns and dusks, the uncomplicated set transforms, at turns dimensional and inviting or skeletal and foreboding. Posner and Korins build the stage space together with light and shadow, filling the stage and isolating intimate moments, always remaining true to Wilder’s bare aesthetic, which eschews the ephemeral trappings of life for the essential and eternal.

Gabriel Berry’s uncomplicated costuming defines period and character but remains familiar and timeless. The effortless donning and shedding of overclothes and accessories transforms the characters’ core clothing across years and events. Like Korins’ set, Berry’s costumes partner exquisitely with Posner’s lighting. The same modest housedress that befits bean stringing easily becomes suitable wedding attire, and in the end, a ghostly burial gown.

Martin has drawn together an impressive ensemble of WTF veterans and fleshed out the nearly 40-person cast with Berkshire locals. The result gives a comfortable, family feel to a potentially unwieldy ensemble. With all but a few forgivable exceptions, the peripheral cast holds their own against the core of seasoned celebrities—a difficult but essential success in a play that so heavily values life’s small moments.

Our Town follows the pairing of radiant Emily Webb (Brie Larson) and awkward George Gibbs (Will Rogers) through their growing up marrying and dying. Rogers lends a delightful dose of personality to the gangly Gibbs, and grows him thoughtfully from boy to man. Larson is feisty and glowing as Webb; she sustains the humility and nervousness of a small-town girl, but lets her beam with hope and potential. Larson is gentle and light with her final revelations, letting Wilder’s words breathe with their intended significance.

Dylan Baker bolsters the roll of Mr. Webb with comedy and sincerity in equal measure, and Becky Ann Baker infuses Mrs. Gibbs with tender vitality in a performance that proves a memorable gem in the already-sparkling production. As Doc Gibbs and Mrs. Webb respectively, John Rubinstein and Jessica Hecht each paint their characters with nuanced authenticity.

It is the subtlety and restraint of the performances that makes the wisdom of Wilder’s poetry sing, and nowhere is the power of that restraint more remarkable than in Campbell Scott’s casually omniscient and omnipresent narrator, the Stage Manager.

Scott is onstage for nearly all of the three-act play, from it’s discrete opening to its final benediction, even during the intermissions between. He is sometimes narrator, sometimes character, directing the jump and flow of the action through time, creating the slap of a newspaper on a front stoop, or the syrupy globe of a marachino cherry from thin air. Scott navigates the demanding role with ease, inviting the audience into Grover’s Corners with a comfortable welcome, like kicking off your shoes at the doorway of a longtime friend. And he delivers Wilder’s insights with unfussy candor that gives their simple beauty space to settle and sigh.

As director, Martin deftly guides his cast, crew and creative team to work, as all good theater should, in a seamlessly interwoven partnership, driven by a clear vision to the telling of their common story. His tenure at Williamstown has been brief and not unflawed, but Martin’s Our Town is an exquisite and resonant note to depart on.

“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn’t it?”