An Illuminating, Heartbreaking “Our Town”

- April 9, 2012

"Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' is unusually good at the Santa Fe Playhouse..."

Say the name Thornton Wilder, and many of us will flash at once to the fascinating novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” with its atmosphere of divinely detached, despairing observation. Others will know the play “The Skin of Our Teeth” but fewer will think of “The Matchmaker,” which became the background for the Jerry Herman musical, “Hello, Dolly” – ah, there you make the connection!

Fewer still will probably be able to cite Wilder’s one-act play “The Long Christmas Dinner,” though one or two music-lovers may know the operatic version by Paul Hindemith. And if I meet someone who mentions the author’s last novel, “Theophilus North,” I take him or her to my grateful bosom, for the book is an unjustly unknown piece of great writing, beautifully observed and luminously penned.

Those descriptors also apply to the work Wilder is undoubtedly best known for, the 1938 play “Our Town” – which has inspired a 2006 operatic version by Ned Rorem as well as musical, film, radio and TV interpretations. Though apparently simple and emotionally direct, and thus a favorite of high school and little theater groups, “Our Town” is not exactly an easy work to mount and interpret. In fact, it’s full of pitfalls, and those with teeth. An unwary director and over-confident cast are in for a rough and unforgiving ride. (Never mind what the audience will go through.)

True, Wilder stripped away the need for realism in scenery and setting – using ladders, chairs, a table or two, atmospheric lighting, and period costuming to suggest an early 20th-century town’s totality – which offers hopes for ease of production. And with the character of the Stage Manager, he wrecked the theatrical fourth wall from the first moment, which suggests the possibility of a happy avoidance of disciplined craft on the actors’ parts.

But taking away the crutches of scenery and props puts more burdens on the director and the actors to deliver the deceptively simple lines and plot motions tellingly; and the straightforward interaction the Stage Manager has with the audience, and the other characters, is the straightforward power of gravity. You can jump up away from it, but it always pulls you back down. And if you’re not balanced right, you’re going to break something good and hard. Maybe your head, maybe your heart; if you’re lucky, just your pride.

I have gone on at some length about the play’s challenges because I want to make doubly clear how unusually good is the current mounting at the Santa Fe Playhouse. Co-produced by Ironweed Productions and the Playhouse, it meets the many difficulties with rare assurance. Scott Harrison proves again that he is one of the region’s best directors: all three acts move with grand yet touching inevitability, and when humanity meets that unforgiving gravity, Harrison somehow lets his characters – and us – down gently yet with unsparing clarity.

He could hardly have chosen a better cast, either. Drawn almost universally from accomplished actors, including current and former professionals and aspiring students, its members combine mastery of language and intent, plus fine physical focus, with an admirable sparseness of emotional weight – they feel it and speak it, but they don’t declaim it. After all, as the play shows over and over, what we want most is what we can least speak to, to others. And “Our Town” must be driven lightly but powerfully, or the emotional anguish (and joy, I admit) will run right into that central problem of unforgiving gravity.

At the performance I attended, Tone Forrest was a calmly omnipotent Stage Manager, while Dan Gerrity and Karen Leigh were exquisitely poised as the affectionate yet uncommunicative Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs. Jonathan Richards’s practical yet visionary Mr. Webb was nicely partnered by Leslie Harrell Dillen’s bustling, bouncy Mrs. Webb. Matt Puett and Mary Beth Lindsey were deeply touching as George and Emily, the Gibbs and Webb scions who act out a village Romeo and Juliet without family feuding but with fate nonetheless waiting in the wings. Other notable performances among the very consistent cast were Matt Sanford’s oh-what-a-beautiful-mornin’ Howie, Campbell Martin’s tormented Simon Stimson and Gay Nathan’s astute Mrs. Grundy of a Mrs. Soames.

“Our Town” continues Thursdays through Sundays through April 15. Times, price information, and reservations are available online or by calling 988-4262. The Santa Fe Playhouse is located at 142 E. DeVargas St.