Moon: (l-r) Brie Larson, Jon Patrick Walker (Silhouette),
and Will Rogers in Our Town.
T. Charles Erickson
Way We Were
Thorton Wilder, directed by Nicholas Martin
Williamstown Theatre Festival, trough Aug. 8
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
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
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.
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.
morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before
it has to go, doesn’t it?”