If you're examining any great work of theatre art for possible production, your first choice could easily prove the most important: Do you make changes to it, or do you leave it alone?
If you decide to present it in the traditional way - whatever that is - you are going to have an entirely different set of challenges than if you allow yourself to rethink it from the ground up. If the work is especially famous, you not only have to be true to the original text, but you need to contend with the memories and expectations the members of the audience will bring with them.
How does all of this relate to the new production of Our Town now playing at the Connelly Theatre?
First, director Jack Cummings III has chosen to remain very faithful to the original staging intentions of Thornton Wilder's brilliant play. Cummings presents the story of the inhabitants of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, using only a few tables and chairs as set pieces, and even fewer props, allowing the actors to create the world of their little town in the minds of the audience members. There are a few creative light effects (the work of R. Lee Kennedy) and original music by Mary-Mitchell Campbell), but few other bells and whistles.
Yet, when it comes to casting, Mr. Cummings has chosen to go as far against the traditional grain as possible, casting George and Emily, the two lovers at the play's center, not with actors around the age of the characters (starting in their mid-teens and ending in their mid-to-late twenties), but with Barbara Andres and Tom Ligon, both in their sixties.
The casting of Andres and Ligon - as well as Jeff Edgerton and Robyn Hussa as Emily's parents and Julie Siefkes and James Weber as George's - reads far more gimmicky than emotionally honest. Although to be fair, Andres and Ligon both give fine performances; their George and Emily are both well-rounded, fleshed-out, and frequently moving people, progressing through their relationship fairly realistically.
George and Emily's parents appear easily young enough to be their children, which throws the play significantly off-kilter. As good as Ligon and Andres are, there's no real sense of loss in the play's heartbreaking conclusion. It's impossible to completely divorce yourself from the difference between how Wilder describes his characters (even giving their exact ages); what happens to George and Emily seems more of a natural course of events than a tragic occurrence.
Emma Orelove is another problem. She's a ninth grader who has been cast as the Stage Manager, who narrates the play and even participates in a few scenes. Orelove's lines sound patently labored, as if she doesn't understand most of what she says, and she is never believable as any inhabitant of Grover's Corners she portrays. (Her line about marrying hundreds of couples rings particularly false.) More damaging still, her performance is broad and unwelcoming, bereft of the warmth for which the role cries out. She brings cuteness but no authority to her role - there's little evidence why she should be managing anything.
Campbell's music is attractive, but occasionally overpowering; Orelove in particular can almost never be heard above it. Too often, the tunes intrude on the action, pushing too much what Wilder made sure the audience would be able to decide for themselves.
Yet, despite his general respect for Wilder's work, Cummings isn't above adding a scene of his own. Informed by Campbell's music, Cummings's production begins with all the actors onstage, speaking parts of each others' lines in a tapestry of tune and dialogue preceding the Stage Manager's opening speech. The sequence adds nothing to the play but a couple of extra minutes.
Wilder's words are simple, beautiful and heartfelt. Cummings may not have altered much of the text, but he would have done well - in every way - to let Wilder speak for himself.
Photo: EMMA ORLOVE as the Stage Manager with TOM LIGON as George and BARBARA ANDRES as Emily. Photo by Heidi Gruner.