Saturday, April 21, 2007

Our Town

‘OUR TOWN’ gets a stylized rendition at CPT

I consider ‘OUR TOWN,’ which is now being produced at Cleveland Public Theatre, to be one of the three greatest symbolic American plays. It, along with ‘DEATH OF A SALESMAN’ and ‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT,’ forces the viewer to think of his or her relationship with community and family while asking the question, “What is the best way to live?”

Thornton Wilder, the author of ‘OUR TOWN’ is the product of being raised much of his life in Asia by his missionary parents and his classical training, which includes a period of time at Oberlin College. His writing reflects the finite details of the Asian striving for order and balance. His use of the Greek chorus, often personified in one person, is a reflection of his classical understandings. He strongly illustrates a “powerful belief in the human spirit.”

Wilder has a very clear vision in ‘OUR TOWN.’ He wants to create a universal quality that transcends far beyond the New England setting of the play in the early 1900s. He is very specific in his descriptions. He tells the longitude and the latitude of Grovers Corners, the supposed setting of the story. He describes specifically where the drug store and the churches and Main Street are. Yet, probing an atlas indicates that his geographic markings are off. The designates are not in New Hampshire. And the drug store, churches and Main Street aren’t there...they are figments of our imagination.

‘OUR TOWN’ broke from the traditions of realism when it opened in 1938. Wilder said that he took the approach because of dissatisfaction with the theatre of his time: “I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive." He did away with real objects, specifically stating in the stage directions that pantomime, ladders, chairs and tables be used, with no scenery, per se. He did this because, "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in 'scenery.”

As for the story, ‘OUR TOWN’ centers on character development that details the interactions between citizens of an everyday town from 1901 through 1913. Though the play mainly centers on the lives of George Gibbs, a doctor's son, and Emily Webb, the daughter of a newspaper editor, it really is about the lives all of the folks of any place.

CPT has heralded Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan’s concept of ‘OUR TOWN’ to be kitschy, a new interpretation. And, in many ways it is. The stage manager, who is a one-man chorus, is replaced by the entire cast being the chorus. George, instead of being the traditional teenager, is portrayed by a grizzled senior citizen. Rebecca, his sister is also played by a mature adult. Much of the movement is choreographed, including the tossing of chairs and repositioning of ladders that draw attention to their presence.

The major question that must be asked in Bobgan’s interpretation is whether it aids in developing the meaning of the playwright or is just affect for affect’s sake. As much as I enjoy, even encourage creativity on the stage and breaking out of the traditional box, I didn’t find Bobgan’s innovations making much of a difference. In fact, I found some of the developmental and casting techniques distracting, taking me off message.

I cannot perceive why George was portrayed by such an old man. In the emotionally charged drug store scene, which I consider to be one of the most beautiful and touching in modern theatre, I found the age differences between the characters made much of George’s awkwardness and youthful realizations unreal. Several other things were distracting. In that same drug store scene, the characters moved from being seated across from each other in the drug store to sitting away from each other and then with their backs to each other. It broke the intimacy of the moment. Why was this done? And, near the end of the play, after a day of rain, a mention is made that, “it is clearing up.” At this moment one of the characters, pokes a long rod against ribbons of material hung from the ceiling and snow begins to fall. The meaning is unclear. Often characters’ physical movements looked like kabuki movements, contrasting with the lines they were thinking. Again, I must ask, for what purpose? At times the actors moved as if they were robots. Why?

Many parts of the production were excellent. Allison Garrigan’s traditional white and mauve costumes worked beautifully. Chris Seibert was effervescent as Emily. Her “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful” speech was compelling. Sheffia Randall Dooley (Mrs. Webb), Steven Hoffman (Dr. Gibbs), Brian McNally (Wally), Elizabeth R. Wood (Mrs. Gibbs), Dennis Sullivan (Mr. Webb) and Rhoda Rosen (Rebecca) were all excellent.

The addition of underscoring music added nicely to setting the right tone for various scenes.

Capsule judgment: Raymond Bobgan’s stylization of ‘OUR TOWN’ did little to enhance a beautifully written script and, at times, distracted from the over-all effect. Creativity has its place in the theatre, but, when used it must enhance, not distract. I still love ‘OUR TOWN.’ Anyone who has not seen a production of the play, should. If you’ve seen the play before, Bobgan’s concept should encourage much discussion.