KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 1, 2001
“Our Town” is performed so often in American high schools and community theaters that it’s become synonymous with amateur productions. What makes it so effortless to produce is the minimal cost, since it’s written to be performed without any sets and few props. But while students may have an easy time with it, they’re really too young to appreciate this American classic. And so, I eagerly anticipated the La Jolla Playhouse production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 drama — and the return of Michael Greif, the former artistic director, to direct it.
As inventive as Greif can be, he has a great deal of respect for text — and simplicity. In many of his productions, from “Therese Raquin” to “Rent,” less is more. Mercifully, he’s applied that mindset to “Our Town.” His production is blessedly simple, though a bit more elaborate than some, with its visible soundman, lovely singing and glorious night-sky lighting at the end. With his crackerjack cast, Greif re-captures the essence of the play. In this ultimate piece of Americana, God is in the details. That’s the structure, as well as the message, of the play. This is America as we fantasize it — turn of the 20th century, small-town living with a strong sense of community, where no doors are locked and everyone knows everyone in town. Nothing much happens; people grow up, get married and die. And that pretty much describes the three acts Thornton Wilder wrote.
In the first, we’re introduced to Grover’s Corners, NH, and the Webb and Gibbs families, with their no-nonsense mothers, avuncular fathers and same-age children. In Act 2, the longtime next-door neighbors Emily and George realize they’ve always loved each other and despite last-minute cold feet, they marry. Act 3 ties it all up with a black ribbon — it’s about death and the afterlife, and realizing how, in our brief time on earth, we so often fail to take note of the daily details, and don’t really appreciate what we have. It could get gooey and maudlin, but here it certainly doesn’t.
Emily Bergl, a luminous Juliet at the Globe a few years back, is equally incandescent as Emily, and Carson Elrod is an aptly awkward George. Jonathan Fried and Tom McGowan are the kind of fathers anyone would want. Peter Bartlett is riveting, with the rueful humor he brings to the oft-inebriated choirmaster, Simon Stimson. Lizan Mitchell, so blazing in “Having Our Say” at the Playhouse, does fine, down-home duty as our host, guide and all-knowing Stage Manager, but it’s surprising that neither her text-bending race nor gender is exploited to bring any new dimension to the piece. And yet, in some ways, it all seems fresh and meaningful. Maybe I’m just getting older. But I’m deeply grateful to Wilder and to Greif, for reminding us what it means to be alive, and for warming our hearts — and breaking them — all over again.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.