Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Directed by James Naughton. Set and costume design by Tony Walton. Lighting design by Richard Pilbrow. Sound design by Raymond D. Schilke. Cast: Jayne Atkinson, Wendy Barrie-Wilson, Reathel Bean, John Braden, Tom Brennan, Kieran Campion, Frank Converse, Jane Curtin, Patch Darragh, Jeffrey DeMunn, Mia Dillon, Conor Donovan, Ben Fox, Kristen Hahn, Carter Jackson, Maggie Lacey, Stephen Mendillo, Paul Newman, Jake Robards, Stephen Spinella, TJ Sullivan, Cynthia Wallace, Travis Walters.
One of the best Christmas presents you're likely to find this year is currently ensconced at the Booth Theatre. While it never would have arrived there without the help of the Westport Country Playhouse, we can all be thankful for the bountiful gifts Thornton Wilder provided for us in his 1938 play, Our Town, that this new revival allows us to unwrap all over again.
James Naughton has done a generally respectable job of directing this production, though it's his deference to the quiet brilliance of Wilder's play that proves his most successful endeavor here. It can be easy to forget the simple magic theatre is capable of creating when so many Broadway houses are filled with soulless star vehicles or overly glitzy musical spectacles. Yet Our Town is one play that uses theatricality to its fullest, most engaging extent, stripping away most of the physical trappings in favor of the emotional commitment and honesty that are the core of all theatre. Bringing out those aspects of the script are what Naughton does best.
Naughton understood implicitly that this isn't a concept for any one production, but rather that the concept and the show are one in the same. He points up Wilder's metaphor at every opportunity, and misses none of the juice to be found: The Booth becomes a town hall in early 1900s Grover's Corners, New Hampshire during the first act when performers, in the guise of audience members, appear in the house (with the house lights up) directing questions to people onstage. Likewise, the seating for the second act wedding seems to melt right into the Booth audience, and the third act graveyard turns the audience into departed souls acting as silent observers, much as the group of actors who occupy one portion of the stage at that point does.
To watch Our Town as Naughton has directed it is to truly become a part of it, to identify with the "anytown" aspect that Grover's Corners exhibits. But Wilder, in painting his broader picture, doesn't shy away from specificity. He embraces the detail found in the simplest, most every day occurrences, be they mundane activities, joy, or sorrow, focusing on one in subject in each of the play's three acts. The first act introduces us to George Gibbs (Ben Fox) and Emily Webb (Maggie Lacey), the second follows their courtship and marriage, and the third tackles the last (yet not least significant) aspect of life: death.
Overseeing all of this - indeed, watching over and calling the cues for life itself - is the Stage Manager, played here by Paul Newman. He possesses an instantly comforting sense of fatherly familiarity, never overplaying or drawing focus, he's the star who doesn't act like one. The only other "name" performer is Jane Curtin, who, likewise, delivers what's required of her role as Emily's mother, providing a warmth and gentle comic timing, but never overstepping her bounds.
The other performers are similarly muted, and that's the one major drawback with this Our Town - none of the performers are really exciting. They're generally well cast in their roles, and all give more than acceptable performances within which they find occasional opportunities to shine, but their portrayals across the board are solid, not special. For many of the minor roles, this is okay, but Fox and Lacey, while both excellent in the play's final (and most emotional) act, have difficulty believably creating the younger versions of their characters early on.
This, like Naughton's inexplicable decision to perform the show with only one intermission instead of two, hurts the balance of the show a bit. Though the show's primary messages are present and the show itself looks exactly like it should (thanks to Tony Walton's correctly sparse sets and Richard Pilbrow's lighting), there's never a spark present to help the production reach that next transcendent level that Our Town is truly capable of.
Had Naughton been able to not only fully realize the play's underlying concept of theatre as life, but been able to help more of the actors find greater definition in the characters who must embody it, this Our Town would have been a superb production. As it stands, this production - which is thoroughly professional in every important respect - is merely good. But when the play being performed is as rich as Our Town, that's still well above average.