November 14, 2014

Our Town Was Made for You and Me

David Cromer, who has reworked Our Town for the Almeida Theatre, also stars in the production in the role of stage manager, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner

             The Almeida Theatre has welcomed actor/director David Cromer to work his magic with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The play has been hailed as one of the best-known and most-performed plays in the United States. It was first introduced on Broadway in 1938 and was revolutionary for its time because it disobeyed typical theatre customs. The play is lacking in set and relies on minimal props and natural lighting to tell the story. Wilder broke the fourth wall, which is usually the boundary separating the audience from the action.

Use your imagination! Mrs. Gibbs (Anna Francolini) prepares "food," photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Indeed, these breaks from normal conventions are evident from the very start of Our Town. The audience is subjected to what can barely be called a stage due to its inclusive nature. Members of the audience are actually situated in the same vicinity as the actors. Two tables with four chairs reside on the space to make up the layout. Cromer acts as the stage manager throughout the play, and as he comments directly to us, this is “scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.”

 Audience members are seated in close proximity to the actors and to the "scenery for those who think they have to have scenery," photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Our Town is appealing because it takes the humdrum and twists it into a production that is watchable and simultaneously relatable. As the description of the play on the Almeida Theatre’s website states, “We all grow-up, we fall in love, we have families and we all die. That is our story.” That is everyone’s story and it’s a universal one at that. You would think that watching a play about something we enact everyday would be monotonous, but if anything, it makes you even more invested in the storyline.

David Walmsley during rehearsal, who plays Emily Webb's friend and eventual husband, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner 
             As little Emily Webb (Laura Elsworthy) awkwardly flirts with her neighbor, George Gibbs (David Walmsley), I can feel the collective sigh of the audience as they recollect their own personal experiences with adolescence. George attempts a marriage proposal over milkshakes and we watch on throughout the marriage ceremony. Emily and George have a family together, but Emily dies young giving birth to their second child.

Laura Elsworthy (Emily Webb) pictured with Daniel Kendrick (milkman Howie Newsome) during rehearsal, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Just like the changing of seasons, we lay witness to a speeded-up version of life’s stages. It was life portrayed in two hours and five minutes, including two intervals, to be exact. You need to be cognizant not to take intermissions from life however. Mrs. Webb (Kate Dickie) and Mrs. Gibbs (Anna Francolini) gossip like neighbors do and prepare food for dinner. The cheery milkman Howie Newsome (Daniel Kendrick) does his rounds, pulling along his imaginary (at least to the human eye) cow. Dr. Gibbs scolds his son for focusing more on baseball than helping his mother.

Milkman Howie Newsome delivering milk with his "cow" in tow, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Professor Willard (Joe Bunker) takes the stage, providing us with a lecture and reciting statistics about the town. Cromer hands members of the audience slips of paper with questions on to ask Willard, which was an inclusion representative of the friendliness and involvement of small towns. In the Almeida Theatre that night, we were all a town in our own right.  

Professor Willard (Joe Bunker) tells the audience all about the history of the town, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             Mrs. Soames (Annette McLaughlin) is the emotional wedding guest as she gushes about Emily and George's beautiful wedding. Members of the community attend choir practice at the local church. Then, of course there is the town drunk and church organist, Simon Stimson (Christopher Staines). Compared to the utter normality of the rest of the town, his unruly behavior lends itself to perpetuating the rumor that he is becoming evermore unhinged.

Simon Stimson (Christopher Staines) drunkenly leads the local church's choir group which leads to an interesting practice session, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             In succinct summary, that is the story of Our Town, but the message is much greater in the grand scheme of things. After Emily dies, she descends to a resting place in the graveyard with others who she once knew in the town. One such resident is Stimson, who took his own life. At first, she is just as full of life as she was when she was alive, but this quickly takes a sharp turn for the worst. Emily is puzzled about the cold detachment of the residents of the surrounding tombstones. She realizes that she is able to revisit a prior time in her life, so she chooses one of her birthdays at home with her parents.

Wally Webb (Arthur Byrne), another resident of the graveyard, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             At this point, the only semblance of a set throughout the entire performance is revealed behind a curtain, fully equipped with things such as: food, a staircase, a kitchen area, a dining room with a table and chairs, and windows. The actors’ British accents have also morphed into American ones, a very subtle change that implies the sameness of all towns. One is like the other is like the other. The people might change, but the stories stay the same.

Emily helps her mother, Mrs. Webb (Kate Dickie), with food preparation, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             With increasing panic, Emily notices that her parents and her younger self hardly look at one another during this otherworldly experience. She exclaims, “That's all human beings are! Just blind people.” Stimson seconds this thought from the grave, claiming that people live in a “cloud of ignorance and blindness.” Perhaps most profound, however, is when Emily poses the question, “Do people realize life as they live it?” Cromer comes in at this point and quips, “Some; saints and poets do.” The answer is most likely a realistic no, especially in London, where everyone seems to be in some sort of a hurry.

Rebecca Gibbs (Jessica Lester) and her brother George enjoy simple pleasures, such as stargazing, in the town, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             I left the theatre concerned for my own mortality, having just viewed the final scene where Emily comes to terms with her death and adopts a stoic stance to the outside world. Even as her widowed husband visits her at her grave, she joins the others in miniscule talk of things such as the weather.

Mrs. Soames (Annette McLaughlin) during rehearsal, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner
             The nature of life is that of a never-ending vicious cycle, much like the washing cycle of a load of laundry that spins and spins until it eventually must cease out of domestic exhaustion. When referring to Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs, Cromer says, half in jest and half in truth, "They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house — and never a nervous breakdown." Unlike human beings, plays and the characters in them are eternal. Well, let’s all hope we keep pleasure in our lives to a maximum while keeping nervous breakdowns to a minimum.

             Catch Our Town at the Almeida Theatre before it ends its run on November 29th. Purchase tickets (while you still can!) here  

That's all folks! As the stage manager, Cromer (pictured here during rehearsal) provides a running commentary throughout the play, photo courtesy of Marc Brenner

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