“Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” says the character of Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
These words resonate with many of our day-to-day frustrations. It is the role of theater, though, to cut through that nonsense. The best art takes the human mess of experiences, beliefs and commitments and finds in it something intelligible and beautiful.
One leaves “Our Town” with a swelling sense of the preciousness of life: a feeling that is sentimental but also undeniable, like the play itself. Set in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, it is really about every town, and every human community. It follows two next-door-neighbor families, who could stand in for any family. The play’s strength is its universality.
Long Wharf Theatre’s production, which opened last week, tries to pull the play into the 21st century. About half the cast are people of color, for one thing; this diversity seems to be the result of choosing the best actors around rather than a political statement.
But there’s a fine line between universality and being generic, and other choices are less successful. The actors wear modern middle-class clothes — jeans, flannels, t-shirts — and in doing so take away the play’s specificity. In a work already in danger of feeling generic by attempting to represent everyone, the highly specific setting — small-town, turn-of-the-century New Hampshire — grounds “Our Town” and shouldn’t be forsaken so quickly.
The two lead actors’ approach suffers from the same miscalculation as the costume design: in trying to be every couple, they fail to register as convincingly unique people. They are appealing and charismatic but feel too much like caricatures.
What this production has in abundance is polish — from the sleek online ads that appeared on my computer last week (with a laudatory review by the New Haven Register, which also happens to be the show’s “Media Sponsor”), to the changeable backdrop and smooth lighting. The cast is strong, and the iconic role of Stage Manager, who acts as narrator and tour guide, is played with warmth and authority by Myra Lucretia Taylor.
The venue is an expansive room with seating on three sides of the stage. “Our Town” kicks off Long Wharf’s 50th season, and most of Wednesday’s audience came straight from a party marking the occasion, held for season-ticket holders. Illustrious guests included former New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. and a nephew of Thornton Wilder himself. The audience’s ritzy evening wear made for a peculiar contrast with the working-class life celebrated in the play, but the intermission schmoozing revealed that these people made up their own kind of community. The woman I was seated next to told me many of the audience members had sent their kids to the same schools.
When originally staged, the play’s unconventional form was too progressive for many. Its risks still feel bold and fresh: the thoroughly broken fourth wall, the actors planted in the audience, the surreal cemetery scene, its division into acts called “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Dying.”
Yet “Our Town” is avant-garde without being cold. The third act builds to an intense emotional pitch and eventually had my whole row in tears. How many shows can you say are imaginative, warm, beautiful, heartbreaking? Those are adjectives I am reluctant to throw around, but “Our Town” demands that you give in to its all-embracing humanity, brought alive and writ large in this big-hearted production.