Thank You, David Cromer!

our-town-theaterThank You, David Cromer

This is the only production of Our Town that you will ever need to see. After close to a century of re-productions taking their shot at America’s most over-produced play, David Cromer is the one who gets it right.

Bypassing the traditional period clothing and unfamiliar New Hampshire accents, Cromer, as the production’s director, helps to make this piece relevant to a contemporary audience. Instead of milking the material for nostalgia, he digs into the deep veins of sorrow and suffering disguised in the first two acts and normally reserved solely for the third. The result is an engaging experience.

In his role as Stage Manager, Cromer cuts through the quaintness with an aridly dry sense of humor, staring out into the audience with the confidence of a clock. Like time itself, his Stage Manager is emotionally unmoved by the passing years and their events while keenly aware of the results. The entire ensemble is bejeweled with so many standouts that listing them would nearly reproduce the credits of the playbill. There is a matter-of-fact quality to all the performances that resonates with reality. Ken Marks (Mr. Webb) frankly describes the simplicity of the town folk to the audience with an unabashed honesty, Wilbur Edwin Henry (Professor Willard) finds the unintentional humor in the amusing habits of college professors we have all known, and Ronete Levenson (Rebecca Gibbs) rings true for anyone who has had a whiny, precocious little sister. All these characters are memorable and extremely relatable, making it even more pointed to join them in their sad tale of the quieter moments in the human struggle.

Live music from the piano, beautifully played by Johantan Mastro (Simon Stimson), gently textures scenes, hinting at the inner pain of this outwardly contented world. It is the contrast between these inward emotions and external appearances that makes these characters so worth looking at. The lighting design, created by Heather Gilbert, complements this prevailing mood with a simplistic approach and almost imperceptible changes that mirror the way time slowly slips by us like grains of sand sliding through the neck of an hourglass, one at a time. We are tiptoed into blackouts by minimal degrees, just as these characters are gradually faced with inevitable death.

Most amazing is how Cromer delves into the Platonistic themes hidden in Wilder’s writing. Much like Plato’s analogy of The Cave, the characters of Our Town are experiencing the shadows of life, but not the real experience itself. They pantomime the objects of their world instead of holding things that are actually tangible. Stacking a chair on top of a table is meant to represent a seat looking out the second story window of a house, though in reality it is just a chair on a table. These are the common approaches to Wilder’s play, expressly written in his stage directions, but it is in Act III: Death & Eternity, where Cromer turns the secret key that unlocks the union of Wilder and Plato.

After her death Emily is granted the opportunity to relive one day of her life among the living, and it is at this moment that Cromer pulls back the black curtain to reveal his master stroke: the one real world that we have only been imagining all along. Literally in keeping with Plato’s Cave, Cromer turn the actor’s focus 180 degrees to see the true source from which the shadows have been projected. All at once Emily and the audience are shown a real kitchen, with real light, real bacon actually being cooked on a real stove by real people, with the accents and clothing true to their time and place. This is the real world that all the shadows have been struggling to create. It is only in death that Emily is finally able to see life for what it is, and it is only in this production that we finally comprehend the depth Wilder is capable of.

This ties together the eerie and lingering sorrows that haunted us in the first half of the show, allowing us to finally realize why were nagged by tragic feelings during such seemingly happy scenes. It is the knowledge of the delicacy in these moments that makes them so tricky to handle. Once the true understanding of death is present, life becomes something so fragile that it is almost impossible not to break it. It is a message, carved in crystal with the most basic of tools, which leaves the audience with a beautiful sadness as they exit the theater. Bravo, cast. Bravo, David Cromer. Bravo, Thornton Wilder and his Our Town. We can finally see this play for what it is. - C. Jefferson Thom

cj_thomMr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.