By Karen Isaacs
When Long Wharf announced that it was opening its 50th anniversary season with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, I had mixed emotions.
Yes, Thornton Wilder has a strong connection to the New Haven area. He went to Yale and lived in Hamden from 1930 on. Our Town is one of his two plays to win the Pulitzer, the other being The Skin of Our Teeth.
But I had doubts. Our Town seems both simple and obvious in its story of the life of a small New Hampshire town. It idealized an American past — the small town where everyone knows everyone else — that seemed out-of-date even in 1938 when the play debuted. With the somewhat trite themes of our inter-connectedness to each other and the reliance we all must have on each other, it can easily become a Hallmark greeting card.
Wilder also liked to experiment with many of the trends of modern drama — breaking the wall between audience and performers, leaps of time, and minimalizing set, lights, costumes to focus on the words.
For those unfamiliar with the play (though it is hard to believe anyone hasn’t seen a production either in high school or community theater), it tells the story of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire at the beginning of the 20th century. It focuses on two families — the Gibbs and the Webbs. Neighbors, Dr. Gibbs is the town doctor and Mr. Webb the editor of the local paper. Their two oldest children, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, grow up together, fall in love and marry. Through it all, a stage manager explains where things are, what is going on and even interrupts the characters in mid-scene to move the plot along.
The three acts are called Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death and Dying.
I’ve put off long enough my reaction to the Long Wharf production. Frankly, I was underwhelmed.
Overall, this production lacked warmth and any charm. Perhaps the black paint on the background set a mood which the production could not overcome. Or, it may have been the very expansive stage.
The actors are all veterans of other Long Wharf productions, which is a nice gimmick, but is only a gimmick. None fall down on the job but then again, none really seem to inhabit their parts. And the idea of using various people from our communities in the show was also a nice gimmick. Again, it did not add anything significant, except to perhaps underline a theme of the play which is obvious to begin with.
Often, a production of Our Town hinges on the person playing the stage manager. Wilder himself played it a number of times; two weeks on Broadway and in a number of summer stock productions including one at Westport Country Playhouse. More recently there are vivid memories of Hal Holbrook and Paul Newman playing the role.
I don’t have a problem with the stage manager being a woman. It doesn’t have to be an older, folksy guy. But the stage manager is a very difficult role — he OR she must combine warmth and love of this town with some cynicism and realization that all is not as it seems. The actor must also keep the play moving.
Myra Lucretia Taylor certainly does that. At times she moves the play along like a train engineer or a particularly bossy aunt. What I found lacking in her performance was the warmth. This was a 21st century stage manager who was simply jumping in to cut people off. You did not feel as though she was truly a part of the town.
Director Gordon Edelstein used some nice touches. The choir rehearsal in the first act is held as though in a choir loft at the top of the theater . But too often it just did not seem special.
I had wished this production would blow me away. I wasn’t at the initial seasons of Long Wharf but I have been a faithful attendee — first as a subscriber, now as a critic — since 1970 or so.
Let’s hope the rest of the 50th anniversary season is better.
Our Town is at Long Wharf Theater through Nov. 2. For tickets and information call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online at http://www.longwharf.org.