"Our Town" is our play. However you feel about it, whether you think it is old-fashioned claptrap or eternal truth, the fact is that you most likely think something, that you had to read it in high school or college, or you played a Townsperson in a production of it, or maybe even the Stage Manager, or you had a whack at analyzing it in a term paper. The point is that most of us are likely to have some connection to this work, which remains -- as the revival that opened this week at Arena Stage lovingly affirms -- inspiring, exasperating, challenging and heart-rending.
Fifty-two years of "Our Towns"! And nearly every night, somewhere on this planet, people are taking out their black umbrellas and playing Emily Webb and George Gibbs, and the milkman Howie Newsome, and silly Mrs. Soames, drunk Simon Stimson, and all the dead people. It has become a communal experience, uniting the intellectuals who like to dissect it and the emotional who just like to cry, the cynical who cheer the dark statements with the optimists who are uplifted by its warm spirit.
"How uneasy I felt when I decided that I liked Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town,' " wrote the sophisticated critic Mary McCarthy long after seeing the original production in 1938. "Could this mean that there was something the matter with me? Was I starting to sell out?"
If you call the publisher, Samuel French Ltd., a man will tell you that "Our Town" has been its bestseller for 50 years. Mostly high schools, he thinks. This play has survived even the awful burden of popularity, performed mostly for the wrong reasons: It's cheap (no set), has plenty of parts and no dirty words. "Everybody thinks he knows 'Our Town,' " wrote Donald Haberman in "Our Town, an American Play." "And what he knows is that the play is for kids. It has become almost impossible truly to see the play free from preconceptions."
It is not just a play for kids, although they are welcome -- as long as they promise to see it again when they grow up. This production, directed by Arena's artistic director-designate, Douglas C. Wager, is a fine opportunity. It is not without flaws, but it does make most of the connections, large and small, that link us to the mythical village of Grover's Corners, N.H.
Wager and set designer Thomas Lynch have settled this community not on the traditional bare stage but on a huge patchwork quilt in muted tones (a log cabin pattern), a floor that conjures up memories of maps and flags as well as the homespun comforter it imitates. Overhead is a canopy of branches and leaves, a roof over the small-town world of the early 20th century in which the play unfolds.
The character of the Stage Manager, played by 23-year Arena veteran Robert Prosky, returning for this production after a 10-year hiatus spent laboring in other vineyards, walks onstage and introduces himself. "I'm Bob Prosky," he says, starting an informal preamble. He introduces his son, John, who has a small part in the play, and some of the other actors -- noting parts they played in other shows, or whether they had been in one of Arena's two previous productions of "Our Town" or taken it on tour to the Soviet Union in 1973. Then he puts on a jacket, and a New England accent, the lights dim and the real play begins.
There is a problem in this folksy approach that manifests itself most seriously in Prosky's Stage Manager; he is so laid-back, so mellow, so un-stagy that he risks being dull. The Stage Manager is more than just an affable guide to the lives and loves of the people in this little Everytown; he is a commentator, a teacher, and at times a provocateur. Prosky's approach is friendly and accessible but lacks the vigor needed for theatrical communication in this instance.
In another major choice, Wager has confronted one of the early and longest-lasting criticisms of Wilder's play: that the mankind it writes of is limited to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants from New England (although the Catholic Church is there, as the Stage Manager notes, but "over beyond the tracks"). In this production, Wager has cast whites and blacks as siblings, as well as in other parts, and a Hispanic as Dr. Gibbs.
But in expanding this vision of the family of man, Wager does not take a strong idea far enough. Why not a handicapped actor, or an Asian one? A Native American? A Caribbean? Once the traditional casting barriers are breached, it feels incomplete not to develop the metaphor fully. This leads some, I fear, to focus on questions like "Why does Doc Gibbs have a Spanish accent?" rather than getting the Big Picture.
But in the small moments of truth upon which this play relies, the production is as sound as a church bell. There are many: Mr. Webb's (Henry Strozier) expression when he is left to make conversation with his prospective son-in-law; Mrs. Gibbs (Halo Wines) plucking a last piece of lint off her son's coat as he stands at the altar; young Rebecca Gibbs's (Margo Hall) plaintive wondering, "Does the moon shine on South America?"; the sharp thwack of a clean tablecloth being shaken out; the rattle of milk bottles; a moon so bright it makes your eyes hurt (or makes you remember one that did). The production has happily married the play's demand for pantomimed props with skilled stagecraft.
The actors, too, offer some lovely performances. Jarlath Conroy gives the lonely, drunken choirmaster -- the character who bears the burden of differentness and mysterious private troubles -- a pained and delicate dignity. Christina Moore and David Aaron Baker, as the young couple around whom the action revolves, are strongest in the sad third act, when the sometimes mawkish innocence of their earlier scenes can be abandoned. (The courtship scene in the second act did seem interminable.) Tana Hicken has a fine scene at the wedding, worrying in love and anguish about the hard moments that lie ahead for her daughter. The stage is filled with people doing everyday tasks: delivering papers, making breakfasts, conducting the choir. These are the actions through which Wilder celebrates the ordinary, re-creating a town's worth of people, as he once wrote of his intentions, "with realism and with generality."
It is certainly possible to view this play on many levels, and that is perhaps the sign of its essential greatness. There is, for example, the notion of mankind's interconnectedness, of the line of people who have tossed papers and made breakfasts of one kind or another since the beginning of time. The archaeology of life, and the role of theater in recording it, is echoed in several speeches, as when the Stage Manager says: "Babylon once had 2 million people in it, and all we know about 'em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts ... and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from work, and the smoke went up the chimney."
Or in the perfect address on a letter one of Rebecca's friends received: "Jane Crofut, the Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America ... Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; The Solar System; The Universe; The Mind of God."
On another level, the play is about enjoying life and, perversely, embracing death. When Emily (Moore) returns to life for one chosen day -- her 12th birthday -- against the advice of her graveyard companions -- she is frustrated because people don't understand they should appreciate life in the face of certain death.
"It goes so fast," she mourns. "We don't have time to look at one another ... Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
It is also possible, nowadays, to mischievously propose a feminist interpretation: Emily, the brightest student in the high school, who dreams she will "make speeches all her life," is funneled into early marriage instead, becoming the traditional helpmate to her farmer husband. And what happens? She dies.
In 1938, the form and techniques employed in this work were considered revolutionary, with its lack of scenery, characters speaking directly to the audience, and use of pantomime. Wilder was influenced heavily by Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" and by Alfred Jarry's "Ubu the King," but he fashioned from these and other European theater a uniquely American product. While the play no longer seems avant-garde, its differentness remains.
Today the play's power, I think, lies in its connections to our common cultural memories, and to our daily trials and sadnesses. In my case, it linked me to the funeral I had attended the day before, a farewell to a man who, like Emily, died too young. I was startled, too, when I picked a copy of the script off my bookshelf and found that the close relative who had owned it previously had underlined the same line that I had scribbled in my notebook at the theater the night before:
"We all know that something is eternal," says the Stage Manager. "And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't even the stars ... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal and that something has to do with human beings."
Maybe the something is "Our Town."
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. Directed by Douglas C. Wager. Set, Thomas Lynch; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; vocal consulting, Ralph Zito. With David Aaron Baker, Teagle F. Bougere, Jarlath Conroy, Ralph Cosham, Terrence Currier, Gail Grate, Margo Hall, Dorothea Hammond, M.E. Hart, Tana Hicken, Jay Hillmer, Lee Holzapfel, Michael W. Howell, Jurian Hughes, Irving Jacobs, Keith Johnson, Drew Kahl, Christina Moore, Eric E. Oleson, Faith Potts, John Prosky, Robert Prosky, Jaime Sanchez, Henry Strozier, Jeffery V. Thompson and Halo Wines. At Arena Stage through Jan. 6.