Monday, February 15, 2021

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you”: Our Town and Another Day’s Begun

Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller in Gregory Mosher's production of Our Town, 1989.

I’ve been living with Our Town for more than half a century, so I was startled to discover, in the interviews Howard Sherman conducted with (mostly) actors and directors for his new book Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century, that so many theatre people were unfamiliar with the play when they signed on to participate in contemporary productions of it. I encountered Our Town in a literature class during my senior year of high school, and I recall vividly sitting in the front row, rapt, as my teacher read the third act out loud – and struggling, probably pathetically, to hide my tears as Emily, who has just died in childbirth, returns to relive her twelfth birthday but, overcome with the anguish of seeing her precious past from the perspective of one who knows the future, begs the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave on the hill. I fell completely in love with the play – and with Thornton Wilder, who had recently published his penultimate novel, The Eighth Day, which I subsequently devoured. (I reread The Eighth Day a couple of years ago; it really is the masterpiece I took it for at seventeen.) Wilder won the National Book Award for that book, four decades after he’d taken the Pulitzer Prize for his second book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He also won Pulitzers for Our Town and for The Skin of Our Teeth, and he had considerable success with The Matchmaker, which most people know in its musical-comedy adaptation, Hello, Dolly!. Plus he penned the screenplay for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies, Shadow of a Doubt.

But if he’d never written anything but Our Town, he would still be one of the handful of America’s premier playwrights. Edward Albee heralded Our Town as the best play ever written by an American; I’d certainly put it among the top three, alongside Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire. And though it arrived in 1938, at the end of two decades during which homegrown playwrights engaged in a great deal of experimentation, and though historically it belongs in a category with other works that seed philosophy in with drama (such as William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life and Robert E. Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight), it feels like one of a kind. Wilder’s chronicle of the lives of small-town New Hampshire folk in the early days of the twentieth century, with one act devoted to daily life, one to love and marriage and one to death, is a sly lesson in trompe l’oeil:  its simplicity turns out to be merely the surface of the ocean, its sweetness goes hand in hand with a tragic recognition of mortality, and its ordinariness is an acknowledgement that no life is truly ordinary. Wilder’s writing style is a miracle of rough-hewn Yankee prose-poetry – akin, I would say, to Willa Cather’s and James Agee’s in A Death in the Family. (These are writers I revere.) His dramatic style, which a historian would identify as theatricalism and which (like Brecht’s) bears the strong influence of Asian performance, is so radical that, more than eighty years after the Broadway opening of Our Town, we’re still catching up with it – as more than one of Sherman’s interviewees, especially among the directors, affirms.

My first Our Town was on Broadway when I was a sophomore in college: Henry Fonda played the Stage Manager, the gifted, delicate film actress Elizabeth Hartman (who wound up a suicide in her early forties) was Emily, and the large ensemble also included Ed Begley, Mildred Natwick and Margaret Hamilton. Annette Bening, a few years from movie stardom, played Emily in one version I came across at American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco in the mid-eighties. Two of the revivals I saw on stage – Gregory Mosher’s, with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, which opened at Lincoln Center in 1988, and James Naughton’s, with Paul Newman, which opened at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2002 before moving to New York – were filmed for television the following year. They joined a string of TV Our Towns that included George Schaefer’s in 1977 with Hal Holbrook and, back in 1955, a musical version with Frank Sinatra (singing “Love and Marriage”). Cast as the adolescent lovers, Emily and George, were Eva Marie Saint, who had just won an Academy Award for On the Waterfront, and, on the cusp of stardom, a thirty-year-old Newman. (It’s pretty terrible, except for Saint. The curious can watch it on YouTube.)

William Holden and Martha Scott in Sam Wood's Our Town (1940).

There’s a movie version, released in 1940, directed by Sam Wood, in which Frank Craven and Martha Scott, from the original Broadway cast, recreate the roles of the Stage Manager and Emily Webb and a twenty-two-year-old William Holden, the year after his breakthrough in the movie version of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, plays George Gibbs. The film is famous for its Aaron Copland score and notorious for its tacked-on happy ending (Emily’s encounter with the afterlife is a fever dream that fades when Doc Gibbs, played by Thomas Mitchell, pulls both her and her newborn through) – which, astonishingly, was Wilder’s own idea. The presentational style of the play collides with the careful period design by William Cameron Menzies, but Wood’s visual approach isn’t exactly realist: Bert Glennon’s cinematography is infused with expressionistic touches, and since, like every other Hollywood movie of the era, it was shot on a soundstage, it has its own brand of artificiality. (In some scenes, Glennon’s lighting sculpts the women in their bonnets the way Stanley Cortez’s would two years later in The Magnificent Ambersons.) The picture is beautiful to look at, and the performances – especially Scott’s and Holden’s and Craven’s, and those of Fay Bainter and Beulah Bondi as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb respectively – are very fine. But I wouldn’t use it to teach the play.

Nor would I rely on the 1977 TV version, though Holbrook (who died in late January) is the best Stage Manager I’ve ever seen – he has a veteran stage performer’s instinct for the lyricism in Wilder’s language – and the supporting cast includes Sada Thompson and Ned Beatty as the elder Gibbses and Barbara Bel Geddes and Ronny Cox as the elder Webbs, Thompson and Bel Geddes cast, intriguingly, in what one might imagine as each other’s parts. Part of the problem with this edition is that Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor, heartthrobs on the big screen the year before in Ode to Billie Joe, play George and Emily, and they’re sadly inadequate to the task. I saw the 2003 version on stage in Connecticut and not the television transcription; there, too, the older performers – Jayne Atkinson, Jane Curtin, Frank Converse, and especially Jeffrey DeMunn as Editor Webb and Stephen Spinella as the alcoholic, doomed Simon Stimson – are the ones to watch. Not Maggie Lacey and Ben Fox as the lovers, though it’s partly Naughton’s fault: on stage, at least, he made the mistake of working too hard to wring the pathos out of their exchanges. Newman, appearing on stage for the first time in more than forty years, had a magical presence, though he was best in act three, when the performance had stopped feeling like a star turn.

The version to watch is Gregory Mosher’s, which is strikingly handsome, with a great deal of wry humor and not a single ounce of sentimentality. Mosher gets the kind of fresh work out of his actors that suggests months spent strip-mining the depths of their characters; there isn’t a scene that feels familiar, even for those of us who have been studying it for years. I’ve never seen the first scene between George (Eric Stoltz) and Emily (Penelope Ann Miller) played as a flirtation before, or the second-act scene where she calls him out for being self-centered and conceited as a quarrel: when he invites her for a soda at Mr. Morgan’s drugstore, Stoltz’s George makes it clear that he doesn’t know how to handle what she’s just thrown at him, but she responds to the way he seems to take charge, and she’s grateful. The drugstore scene, one of the glories of American dramatic writing, is so magnificently layered and the shifts are so precise and unexpected that you truly are watching how a friendship angles into a romance, and Miller’s declaration to Stoltz’s awkward, half-expressed plea for her to become his life partner – “I am now, George.  I always have been” – is deeply moving. Stoltz has a laid-back, almost lackadaisical teen-athlete presence, but in his panic at the church before they walk down the aisle you see his capacity for reckless emotion; he lays the groundwork for the indelible third-act moment when he throws himself on her grave. He’s terrific and she’s sensational – the best Emily I’ve ever seen. And James Rebhorn is the best Doc Gibbs, capable of bursts of jagged anger (in the scene where he reams out his son for his careless treatment of Mrs. Gibbs) and, in his scenes with Frances Conroy, a man who’s as profoundly in love with his wife as George will be with his. When he steps away to lay some of Emily’s flowers on Julia Gibbs’s grave, we see that his grief has made him, too, a little wild. (Conroy, Roberta Maxwell and Peter Maloney as Emily’s folks, and Jeff Weiss as a surprisingly warm Simon Stimson are all splendid.)

Sherman’s book focuses on thirteen twenty-first-century productions of Our Town; he explains the ways in which each is unusual and then he records the words of those involved in each. He begins with David Cromer’s, which began in Chicago in 2008 and moved to the Barrow Street Playhouse in downtown New York, where it played for two years before going on tour. I saw it three times; it’s the only Our Town I know that’s even more of an achievement than Mosher’s. When I wrote about it I compared it to Andre Gregory’s Uncle Vanya, which was filmed by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street and which, I believe, had a strong influence on Cromer. Cromer staged it in three-quarters – audience on three sides, with a handful of theatregoers right in the center of the action – and in modern dress, and the actors used their own accents rather than replicating the New England drawl. In the third act, when Emily returned to earth to relive her birthday, a curtain that had closed off the fourth wall of the house was pulled aside to reveal a completely naturalistic recreation of a turn-of-the-century kitchen, with the Webbs in period clothes and Mrs. Webb brewing real coffee and cooking up real bacon on the stove. It was one of the great coups de théâtre I’ve witnessed – Cromer brought to vivid dramatic life Emily’s experience of emotion memory. I can’t overstate the power of that scene. The excellent character actor Skip Sudduth happened to be in the audience the night I saw it for the first time, and he was directly in my sights, on the other side of the actors playing the dead in the graveyard. At the end he was sobbing, and suddenly I realized that I was, too; I might have been looking in a mirror. 

Paul Newman in Our Town (2003).

Cromer’s and Naughton’s are the only ones Sherman covers that I saw. Naughton’s was occasioned by 9/11, and another, at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England, was prompted by the suicide bombing there during the Ariana Grande concert in 2017. Sherman visits a wide range of Our Towns that includes one at Sing Sing Correctional Facility featuring inmates, one at a mental health facility outside Philadelphia by members of the staff, a collaboration between Deaf West Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse, and one by Miami New Drama with a Haitian Emily and a Creole George. His project is fascinating and I enjoyed submerging myself in one unconventional approach to the play after another. The quality of the chapters is highly varied, though, depending on how articulate the participants are about what they learned about the play and, frankly, how willing they were to leave behind their own personal and political concerns to embark on an honest investigation of Wilder’s text.

The clearest contrast in this regard is between the Miami New Drama actors and Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, which performed Our Town in repertory with The Laramie Project, the dramatization by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project of the murder of Matthew Shepard. Both the Haitian and the Creole actors in Miami talk about the moments of revelation during the rehearsal and also the performance process when they discovered overlaps between Wilder’s depiction of early-twentieth-century white New Englanders and their own cultures. Their enthusiastic open-heartedness is inspiring; I so wished I’d been able to see the show. On the other hand, the Theatrical Outfit crew seems interested only in ways in which they can turn Wilder’s play into a reflection of their own experiences – and that’s an entirely different thing. I’d be willing to concede that if you rehearse Our Town concurrently with The Laramie Project – which strikes me as baffling at best, idiotic at worst – then it might be hard to prevent the social consciousness of the later play from slipping into your thinking about the earlier one. And though I don’t think that explaining Simon Stimson’s alienation from the community of Grover’s Corners by deciding he’s gay is particularly interesting or does much for the play, I guess it’s not absolutely the worst idea I’ve ever heard. (The actor who played the role at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park in London, which shows up a couple of chapters later, evidently came up with the same reading.) But when the actor who played Simon in Atlanta dreams up a back story for his character that involves his having had teenage sex with the future Editor Webb, you feel like you’re listening to a high school kid preparing a scene for drama class that you can only hope his teacher will talk him out of. It’s one thing to use your imagination and another to rewrite the damn play. The actor cast as Mrs. Gibbs, determined to rescue her character (though I wasn’t aware that Mrs. Gibbs needed rescuing), argues that when she talks to her two children about how they spend their allowance, she’s giving her daughter Rebecca permission to do as she likes, to be her own person. Unfortunately, what actually happens in this brief scene is that she tells Rebecca, who has been hoarding her money, that it’s a good idea to spend some of it every now and then – an affectionate way of steering the girl away from holding money in too hard a regard. (Rebecca admits in this scene that she loves money more than anything in the world.)

The deaf actor who played Simon Stimson in the Deaf West/Pasadena Playhouse collaboration decided that the character was a hearing child who became deaf, and that was the cause of his psychological discomfort. I thought that was a clever reading – imaginative rather than solipsistic. Sherman’s book is dotted with insights like that one. When The Lookingglass Company in Chicago mounted the play, most of the members of the ensemble had been acting together for years and some of them had been romantically involved; we hear how those relationships illuminated moments in the text. I loved hearing different men and women cast as the Stage Manager struggled to figure out how to play a character who appears to defy all the ways in which actors (especially American actors) move inside a role.

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that many of the actors Sherman interviews didn’t know Our Town until they were cast in it, and many of them had flawed preconceptions – that it was sappy and banal. Stephen Spinella, so marvelous as Simon Stimson in James Naughton’s production, had the idea that it was an “awful reactionary play about these people who don’t want anything to change.” When he started working on it, he realized how wrong he’d been – that it was the opposite of reactionary. Our Town is Sherman’s favorite play, and he does it the greatest service possible: he shows us exactly why it’s great and why it’s indispensable.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

 

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