It's hardly Thornton Wilder's fault that his 1938 meditation on life and death has become associated with sentimentality and treacle after the damage wrought by innumerable high school and community theater productions. In his time, after all, Wilder employed a subversion of dramatic convention to make a grand statement about human life. The question now is whether Wilder's universal message, in serious hands, still manages a sharp commentary on our common plight.
Pretty much, it turns out. Director Craig Johnson scraps the role of the Stage Manager, which lowers the cornball quotient and shores up Wilder's more metaphysical ambitions. The omniscient (and usually, painfully, wistful and earnest) narrator's lines are instead distributed throughout the cast, resulting in a haunting sense of the players stepping out of their specific roles into a timeless reality.
It's easy to forget how odd a play this really is. It takes place over more than a decade in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, but Wilder effectively undercuts realism by holding up individual days as microcosms for the river of time. While we meet the town doctor (Bob Malos) and his wife (Kirby Bennett), they're effectively viewed through an invisible sheet of Plexiglas, pantomiming daily life in the absence of props, captured in a sort of eternal present.
Eventually, we come across the town newspaper editor (John Middleton) and his wife (Heather Stone, with a study in tics that eloquently expresses the repression of her character). In time, their daughter Emily (Jenny Hollingsworth Kathman) will fall in love with the doctor's son George (Ian Miller) in a sequence of considerable sweetness (Miller's earnest acceptance of Emily's criticism of his character amply demonstrating that a young person in the throes of romance will accede to anything).
Of course, any general sampling of humanity will yield a healthy share of misery, much of which is borne here by Sam Landman as Simon Stimson, a church organist who moonlights as the town drunkard. But other performances undermine ostensibly feel-good moments: Bennett seems inordinately panicked when divulging to a friend a possible financial windfall, for instance, and Middleton's tormenting of his new son-in-law on his wedding day contains a distinct note of devilish boredom before he brings things around to a more wholesome tone.
It's the third act that everyone remembers, what with the creepy dead people lined up and observing the land of the living. Bennett drains all the life (go figure) out of her performance, chillingly glacial as her character begins the long slow slide of letting go of the world (Wilder's afterlife is depressingly classical Greek, all shades and shadows and no River Styx in which to wash up). Kathman, more recently deceased, still pines for the textures of this mortal coil.
On the one hand, this show wrests a real sense of emotional power from this sequence—frankly, any vivid evocation of the fleeting nature of our attachments and hopes can water up the stoniest eye, and this production doesn't disappoint. At one point near the end, the living and the dead are arrayed at opposite ends of the stage, and Jen DeGolier's lighting design paints us all as hangdog shades at the cruel mercy of time.
But I'll confess to always feeling that Wilder overreaches here, and I didn't come away from this show with a changed opinion. Emily dips a toe back into the stream of her mortal life, only to come away appalled by the casual way in which the living disregard the miracle of incarnation. What, exactly, about tedium and routine is so foreign to our nature? Yet beyond such quibbling, this version of Our Town reveals the play to be, if anything, underrated as a result of over-familiarity. Best file it under the category of strange, mystical, and perhaps over-idealized products of the American mind—a categorization I don't think Wilder would mind.