By Charles McNulty
For The LA TIMES
Grover's Corners, the fictional New Hampshire community of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," uncannily resembles our neck of the woods in David Cromer's starkly sublime and strikingly unsentimental revival, which opened Wednesday at the Broad Stage with Oscar-winner Helen Hunt assuming the role of the Stage Manager.
It's a safe bet that Chicago and New York audiences saw their own reflections when incarnations of this purposefully unadorned production took those cities by storm. Landscape obviously has nothing to do with it. This is a play that has forsworn realistic scenery and props, so there are no purple sunsets or hints of the San Gabriel Mountains off in the distance.
How then does Cromer make us believe that this "Our Town" is really our own? For one thing, you can't help being aware of your fellow theatergoers. The house lights are blazing throughout much of the show and the rectangular playing area, lying between two opposing sets of bleachers and chairs (the Broad has been especially reconfigured for this production), has the effect of subtly incorporating the audience into the acting company.
For another, the production is performed in contemporary clothing you might throw on for a trip to the mall or a movie. There's no striving for early 20th century New England manners or mores. The Gibbs and Webb families, whose interwoven fate makes up this three-act drama about the mournful beauty of everyday life, wouldn't seem out of place at Olive Garden or P.F. Chang's.
There's certainly nothing old-fashioned about the way the siblings scream and tussle -- or how their parents reprimand them. Lori Myers, one of several original cast members, lends Mrs. Gibbs a contemporary Midwestern tone that recalls Laurie Metcalf at her most exasperated. And Jeff Still as Doc Gibbs and Tim Curtis as Editor Webb might very well be standing on line with you at Home Depot.
In short, there's no escape from the familiarity and immediacy of this world.
Although there are several sharply distinctive performances (James McMenamin's sweet but slightly slow George Gibbs being the most original), the acting isn't what distinguishes Cromer's production. In fact, the roughness of the playing style can take some getting used to. When Myers' Mrs. Gibbs and Kati Brazda's Mrs. Webb busily and rather bafflingly mime their household chores early in the first act, I was reminded of Wilder's suggestion that the actors in these roles turn their backs to the audience so as not to "distract and provoke" with their puzzling displays of cooking and washing up.
Cromer, for the most part, takes what Wilder describes as the play's "scorn of verisimilitude" quite seriously. Emily, the notably bright Webb daughter whose romance with George is recollected in the second act, is played by Jennifer Grace, an astringent actress who hardly seems like a teenager. The piano used in the raucous choir practice scene is called an organ. And there's little attempt, beyond the presence of two wooden tables, of establishing an interior outline of these domestic lives.
Somewhat more daringly, the director stands behind Wilder's belief that the occasional amateur note can deepen the artistic experience. Several of the supporting performers, for instance, have a raw quality that dissolves the distinction between us (the audience) and them (the actors). Wilder, who set out to show "the life of the village against the life of the stars," wants us to feel implicated in this story, and Cromer employs a new palette to achieve this end.
No one thinks of "Our Town" as avant-garde anymore. How could this homespun staple of American drama, so beloved by community and student theater groups, be remotely considered experimental? Yet when the play first appeared in 1938 at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, it was thought to be groundbreaking, and Wilder himself was aware that the "new bold effect in presentation-methods" was a crucial part of its interest.
Cromer comes up with surprises that may startle traditionalists. The casting of Hunt -- one of several replacements for Cromer, who initially played the part of the Stage Manager during the production's record-breaking New York run as well as during its world premiere in Chicago -- is the least of them. Hunt's manner is so confident and smooth as she strides about the length of the stage playing, pausing and fast-forwarding the action that gender never becomes an issue.
The final act, however, contains a theatrical coup that, while flying in the face of the stage directions, presses upon us with new weight the haunting grace of the play's postmortem ending. It would be unfair to give this away, but let me just say that the actors who portray the assembled graveyard dead are positioned in such a way to magnificently symbolize the background of patient eternity on which our lives fleetingly unfold.
But perhaps the biggest shocker of this "Our Town" is its refusal to bask in amber glows, wallow in folksy sentiments or indulge in shopworn sermonizing. Admittedly, the production's power would be greater in a more intimate space. Still, this is a stunning theatrical achievement. Cromer throws dazzlingly harsh light on the truth that's been there all along yet is always such a challenge to see.
Photos: Upper: Helen Hunt. Lower: James McMenamin and Jennifer Grace.
Credit: Iris Schneider