Thu Mar 5 2009
Photograph: Carol Rosegg
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
It’s a pretty obvious statement that Thornton Wilder’s Our Town should be performed bare bones—that’s how he conceived it in 1938—but how easily we forget. The 2002 Broadway revival, starring the late Paul Newman as the Stage Manager, was a dull, precious, period-dress affair. Now Chicago director David Cromer and two dozen visiting and local actors revivify this American classic—not just by wearing modern street clothes and refusing to ape a New Hampshire accent—but by meeting this frighteningly profound play head-on, without sentimentality or the false balm of nostalgia.
Wilder chose a liberatingly severe aesthetic to map the topography of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. Except for a handful of tables and chairs, there’s no scenery, just an empty stage and a tartly ironic Stage Manager (played, interestingly, by Cromer himself) who narrates and interrupts the scenes, guiding us through some 12 years in the lives of the town’s inhabitants. Special attention is paid to sweet young lovers Emily Webb (Jennifer Grace) and George Gibbs (James McMenamin), from teen friendship to marriage and a tragic turn of their destinies. Along the way, Wilder pulls focus way back to reveal a cosmic dimension, where joy and sorrow are equal modes from the vantage point of the stars. What’s real and what’s theatrical illusion? Not to spoil anything, but there’s a flourish in the third act that stuns and shatters the rules.
Wilder’s script glows with folksy pathos, but these performers don’t fish for laughs or cheap tears. In true Chicago-stage fashion, it’s a muscular, unfussy reckoning with a great work, totally contemporary, yet true to the original.—David Cote
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