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Our Town

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Cromer
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

You may not hear the earth crack over the echoes of your palpitating heart or see decades of artifice dissolve through your tears, but you'll still feel them washing you away. David Cromer's magnificent production of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre renders you that blissfully helpless: It exposes you to every conceivable emotion, but never in the way you expect. It's hilarious one moment and devastating the next. It's inimitably intimate, yet more expansive than the Atlantic Ocean. It contains practically nothing, but says everything. It is as close to perfect as theatre gets.

Watching Cromer's full-scale revitalization of Thornton Wilder's classic rumination on love, the universe, and everything, which premiered in Chicago last year, you're united in communion with the first audiences to experience it 71 years ago. Countless productions at every level of professionalism, from high schools through Broadway (the latter most recently in 2002-2003), have accustomed us to a dearth of sets, the omniscient Stage Manager who leads us through an ordinary day, an ordinary marriage, and an ordinary eternity in the ordinary town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. But it's been impossible to brush all this aside and see it as soberly as audiences could in 1938 - between then and now, Our Town ceased being a play and became Great, and has since always been treated as such.

No more. Cromer has done with Our Town what he did with last year's musical Adding Machine: stripped away all the too-knowing avant-garde gloss that's been shellacked onto it, and let the text glow through. When you enter the Barrow Street, you see it's been transformed from a standard proscenium space into a compact three-quarters black box that set designer Michele Spadaro has apparently filled with even less scenery than usual: two tables, eight chairs, and nothing more. When Act I begins, the house lights do not dim. When the Stage Manager appears, he's dressed in a plaid shirt and jeans (the costume designer is Alison Siple), he carries a yellow legal pad, and a pencil is tucked behind his ear. He speaks rapidly, unfalteringly, and matter-of-factly. He's not our traditional, comforting guide, but a business-minded man of the theatre.

Our Town
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

He's also played by Cromer, in a portrayal of such fiendish off-handedness, it hardly seems like he's acting: As he lays out the boundaries of the town - this family's kitchen here, that family's garden there - he does so with the tick-tock efficiency of, well, a director blocking a ho-hum scene. There's nothing to this, he seems to be saying: Existence is no more than this, me and you. By building the town as much within the seating sections as before them, he transforms you into another inevitability of Grover's Corners: just as important as the people who work, romance, and die there.

But we must hear their story. The town's inhabitants enter purposefully, also all dressed in contemporary clothes to go about their daily responsibilities, many of which define the before, during, and after of Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace) to George Gibbs (James McMenamin), two young teenagers who discover their feelings for each other, then conspire to play them out by courting, marrying, having children, and growing old together. Not everything works out quite as they plan, but what ever does? Depictions of their unexceptional travails also extend to their families: a mother, father, and sister for George (respectively played by Lori Myers, Jeff Still, and Ronete Levenson), and a mother, father, and brother for Emily (Kati Brazda, Ken Marks, and Seamus Mulcahy). A drunken organist (Jonathan Mastro) and a selection of chattering neighbors of various types fill out the periphery.

Typical for Our Town, the actors and their characters conduct their lives with grand simplicity: Tangible objects, such as newspapers and string beans, occasionally make appearances to identify moments of in-focus specificity, while more generalized tasks are mimed, and so on. But Cromer doesn't stop there. After taking the first act to nearly the brink of preciousness, he tempers it with a vinegar-spiked Act II, making the audience not just participants in George and Emily's wedding, but complicit in the happiness that seems always on the verge of collapsing. As you're seated only feet from the performers, each tiny confidence and insecurity whispers in your ear and resonates throughout your body as though it's happening directly to you.

Sadly, I can't tell you much about the third act. It's so integrated a conclusion that without conversational fluency in the unique staging language of Acts I and II, it would sound like little more than a hodge-podge of confused ideas. But it's Act III that makes this Our Town a masterpiece, taking Wilder to the furthest extremes without ever leaving the boundaries of the play itself. Cromer combines every element of his conception into moments of such arresting beauty and spiritual clarity that you might be astonished to discover them in a play so familiar. I counted three astonishing coups de théâtre in Act III alone; I might have missed a few others because I was crying so hard.

Unlike some directors who've lately attempted to reduce American classics by impressing their own incongruous visions on them at any cost, Cromer has done his job the old-fashioned (and most difficult) way: by bringing to the forefront the elemental core of every moment. This philosophy floods the staging, which takes you on a sweeping tour of all the characters' inner and outer struggles by making each moment as small but as vivid as possible. But it's likewise evident in every performance: Waxing enthusiastic about Grace's edgy and tomboyish Emily, McMenamin's reluctantly jock-y George, or the mothers' steel-belted suppleness would require neglecting other actors of equal worth. In no role is a misstep made, a false syllable spoken, or a laugh or tear lost or unearned.

This includes Cromer, whose Stage Manager is a marvel of even-toned understatement, magnetic and commanding, but never demanding. Like the man playing him, he just lets everything unfold naturally, applying no extra effort but also restricting nothing. He's the final arbiter of freedom, teaching you what the boundaries are, what they're not, and what they should be, but never requesting or needing your approval. Time goes on, with or without us, and this is but one slice.

How better for the character to behave than exactly as his namesake profession would: allowing, enabling, and watching from the wings, but forever keeping a discreet distance? The Stage Manager, after all, doesn't create - he leaves that to Others. Cromer, however, has secured his own place in history by constructing a production that doesn't just ceaselessly entertain and inspire, but changes the way you look at Our Town, revivals, theatre, and life itself.

Our Town
Through April 14
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Performances: Tues 7:30 pm, Wed 7:30 pm, Th 7:30 pm, Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 2:30 pm, Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2:30 pm, Sun 7:30 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix