Stooping gently, a man takes a few strides onto the dim stage, paces for a moment, adjusts a few chairs, all as if he were making a final, rather late inspection of his set. Satisfied, he leans against a side wall and, in a casual soliloquy, tells the audience about his play: who wrote it, who’s directing it, how it opens with a summer dawn. And then the light begins to grow.
“Our Town,” the Dramat’s spring mainstage production, is a theatrical study of the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners. This is a town of the self-possessed, the externally certain and confident. Yet by examining their lives, the play extracts the doubt and fear, the confusion at the bottom of the human soul, and the attempt to grapple with it, to escape what remains with us even in the grave.
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This is a play about absence. Its characters inhabit an almost immaterial world. The only props are a few bare chairs, tables and, in one scene, two ladders that stand, remarkably, for second-story windows. Invisible coffee is drunk from invisible cups, and the town’s buildings are indicated by vague gestures offstage. There is no backdrop, only a brick wall with a few mops hanging from hooks. “Our Town” is visually stripped of all that is not human; it is intensely focused, even obsessed with naked human activity and interaction. This simplicity seems to ask: What, if viewed apart from its varnish and affectation, is this interaction?
Inanity: a collection of vague phrases that hide, or rather ignore, real interaction; a rejection of introspection and real, articulate thought for what is expected, what is familiar. The Stage Manager (Joshua Brody ’07) frequently interrupts the play to point out this dichotomy between the apparent simplicity of Grover’s Corners and the complex agony that its citizens universally overlook.
The wedding in the second act represents the climax of their hypocrisy; it creates an almost unbearable sense of loss. This ritual, which binds women into an endless cycle of drudgery and makes communication impossible by making it infinite — as the father of the groom, Dr. Gibbs (an able Nick Barton ’08) asks, how is it possible to have enough to talk about for 20 years of meals? — is nevertheless praised for making its victims “happy.”
“Our Town” is original in this simplicity, this mundanity. It does not attempt to create characters; it simply presents them, in all their awkwardness, inexactness and self-delusion. Conversation revolves around the usual, the cliched, the aphoristic, and through it the play speaks subtly, merely whispering its real content. The first act leaves the audience with a vaguely unsettling impression that seems irreconcilable with the almost idyllic plot. The play uncovers itself slowly through the speech of its only self-aware characters: the metatheatrical Stage Manager and, in the third act, the dead. Like the audience, they are spectators of these odd, almost non-human characters; only as non-participants can they understand the empty denizens of this barren stage.
Director Toni Dorfman’s clean production allows the play’s focus on subtle social interactions to show through. The cast is strong (despite some slightly caricaturized and muffled accents), with especially effective performances by Carly Zien ’08 in the role of Emily Webb and Brian Earp ’09 as her father, Mr. Webb.
Brody as the Stage Manager gives the most realized performance, even if it is not revolutionary. He carries something of the otherworldly about him; slightly hunched, with his orange hair tied back in a haphazard ponytail, he is like a foreigner among the upright and prim. Thus, when he occasionally becomes one of his own characters, he is invariably an eccentric, someone virtually inconsequential to life in Grover’s Corners. At the play’s opening, it seems that his portrayal leaves something to be desired, is too awkward or weak-voiced. But with his closing soliloquy, we understand that he could not have been any other way, that he has captured the artistic and quaint quality of the poet, of the man who recognizes and expresses life.
“Our Town” is simply and gently elegant. It lulls its audience into the calm somnolence of Grover’s Corners, and then, just as subtly, reveals the unsettling meaning of that slumber. Overall, it is an unsettling production, a relevant play and an excellent example of stagecraft.