Catching up with “Our Town”

When Katharine Hepburn made her one and only appearance at the Academy Awards in 1975 and the standing ovation subsided, she motioned to the audience to sit down and thanked them profusely. But she immediately followed that with, “I’m also very happy that I didn’t hear anyone call out, ‘It’s about time.'”

When I was taking my seat in the Barrow Street Theatre for Friday night’s performance of Our Town, that’s what ran through my mind. The show has been running off-Broadway since last February and for one reason or another I kept putting it off. Truth be told, there were too many visits to Mary Stuart and The Norman Conquests for me to focus on what was going on downtown. Then David Cromer left and, well, I kinda lost interest. I was told I had to see it with him, and his absence sort of made me go “Well…” Now that the show is in its final weeks and Cromer has returned, it was my warden’s reprieve (you wouldn’t believe the looks I got when I said I hadn’t seen it yet).

I went with my friend Russ Dembin, who happens to be a dramaturge and something of an expert on the play. Now this was one of the few dramas that I have never encountered in any form (unless you count that cheap final scene of Next Fall), so I was fortunate to have him with me, feeding me info on the play’s history, various landmark productions (and yes, we talked the Paul Newman TV musical where Sinatra first sang “Love & Marriage” – take a look at the title of the play’s second act). We were seated and I waited, casually checking out the various corners. I just knew where Cromer would be entering and I was not wrong.

However, there were certain things I picked up on – the house lights weren’t lowered. He was in street clothes. This was to say nothing of the “scenery” – two tables and eight chairs, each representing the two major households. During his introduction, which was delivered with the same emotional gravity of a house manager informing the audience of the fire exits, he pointed out various locales in the fictional Grovers Corners. However, I wasn’t prepared when he asked a question. Directly at me, locking eyes with mine. Taking that moment to make me look at the sunrise over the far side of the theatre, I started to see what he was up to as both a director and storyteller – immersing the audience in the world of the play.

The cast was in street clothes, with only rehearsal pieces of costuming like aprons to suggest the time of the play. Everything else was modern – the clothes, the wallets with metrocards in them and the textbooks looked they were picked up from a recently closed NY city school. Questions were given to random audience members, Cromer perched himself around the auditorium to observe the action (that could be intimidating for actors). The play has always been famous for being metatheatrical and Cromer strips away further excesses to get to the point of Wilder’s Pulitzer prize winning play.

His work is especially evident in the cast, who make great use of the performing space. The ensemble is on the whole absolutely terrific. Jennifer Grace is probably twice the age of Emily, but she imbues her with the shy earnestness of a bookish teenager and you buy it. But my personal favorite was Ann Dowd as Mother Gibbs; I just could not take my eyes off of her whenever she was onstage.

The third act was, of course, the apex of the entire production with a stunning flourish of realism in the metatheatrics while Emily relives her 12th birthday. Cromer keeps the proceedings relentlessly unsentimental and that only adds to the poignancy of the moment. Not knowing the play, many folks had told me it had a real downer of an ending. While it’s definitely sad, I felt quite the opposite.  I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the piece.

I’m glad I got to see it before it closed and well… it was about time. And after the play was over, I really wanted some bacon. In fact, I still want some.

One thought on “Catching up with “Our Town””

  1. I saw it with David Cromer, too, in July 2009. I’d seen a production at Trinity Rep in Providence, (with an African-American woman stage manager, btw) and I’ve seen the DVD with Paul Newman. But this production simply blew me away.

    For the first time, I felt like the play could be taking place in a small New Hampshire town (or any small town) today. Like he did with Brighton Beach Memoirs, Cromer stripped away all the schmalz (no fake, exaggerated New England accents) and made it timeless.

    I also think Barrow Street is the perfect location – you feel like you’re in a community center in a small New England town watching a play. And Cromer delivered the most un-actorish performance I’ve ever seen. When he began speaking, I really thought he was just giving the turn off your cell phone announcement but it was the beginning of the play!

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