Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is a certified American classic. Taught and performed in high schools across the country, the play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938, at times suffers from the regrettable side-effects of that familiarity, reduced to a sentimental period piece appealing to those nostalgic for small-town simple life at the turn of the 20th century.
Wilder, oddly enough, is often misunderstood by those who should know him best.
So what happens when an Englishman, known for his adventurous and fearless approach to both 20th century classics and new plays, tackles the lessons of Grover’s Corners for the first time?
Unlike his American colleagues, Actors Theatre of Louisville artistic director Les Waters did not grow up with “Our Town.” He never played young George Gibbs on a community stage, nor did he read the play in a high school or college literature course. He’s directing his first production of the play, which opens Thursday, for Actors Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, approaching Wilder’s approach to theatrical language and views on life and death with fresh eyes.
“Not having seen it and really knowing its history, beyond what people tell you, it’s nice to be doing a play that’s completely new to me, and I’m not negotiating an audience’s expectations of it,” says Waters. “The other day we were working on something, and someone was in the room watching and said ‘oh it’s not usually done like that’ and I said ‘don’t tell me!’ I don’t want to know what the usual is.”
Not that he’s unaware of how Wilder’s play is perceived by its fans and its detractors.
“When I first said to people I was thinking about doing ‘Our Town,’ some people I knew rolled their eyes at me,” says Waters. “And other people made that ‘aaahhh’ sound, as if I’d opened a box of kittens and it was their favorite thing.”
“What’s interesting is that somehow, Thornton Wilder has become ‘cozy Uncle Thornton’,” he adds with a wry smile. “And one of his best pals was Gertrude Stein, and when the play was performed in 1938, and it was a big success in ’38, it must have been an extraordinary event to see.”
It’s easy to forget how unconventional Wilder was in his time. Now very familiar, the meta effects Wilder employed in “Our Town,” like breaking the fourth wall and using a character actually called “Stage Manager” to discuss the play in its own terms with the audience, were fairly new in the 1930s, a response to the what Wilder thought to be an inadequate theatrical language. And he won his other drama Pulitzer for the 1942 dark comedy “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a wild allegory which shares quite a bit of DNA with James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake.”
Waters’ production will continue to push that experimental approach by incorporating the actual stage manager (as opposed to the analog) into the production. So Bruce McKenzie will play the narrative role of Stage Manager (seen last season as Lord Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” and in Sam Marks’ Humana Festival drama “The Delling Shore”), and longtime Actors Theatre stage manager Paul “Pablo” Holmes will be visible during the production in his role as the actual stage manager, calling the show from the Pamela Brown stage.
Because “Our Town” is firmly established in the early 20th century (the show opens in 1901, then skips ahead a few years with each act), the play is often presented as a period piece. But Waters and costume designer Janice Pytel decided the sizeable cast would wear contemporary clothing, and the set will be kept as spare as possible to honor Wilder’s original imaginative vision from his script: “No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light.” The opening lines follow:
STAGE MANAGER: This play is called “Our Town.” It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced and directed by A. … (or: produced by A; directed by B ). In it you will see Miss C ; Miss D; MissE ; and Mr. F ; Mr. G ; Mr. H ; and many others. The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn.
“When you walk into the Pamela Brown, the entire space is stripped out,” says Waters. “There’s nothing out there aside from that multi-density fiber, that brown stuff you lay under a floor, and thirty-four blue plastic chairs for the company.”
“Performers step out and ask you to imagine something,” he says. “And we do.”