Interview: Dan Wackerman, Artistic Director of Peccadillo, on Wilder's One-Acts

I think Wilder was looking to get back to a theater in which language and imagination are front and center, grappling with life’s weightiest questions.
— Dan Wackerman

What was your first encounter with Thornton Wilder’s work? I think I’ve always loved Thornton Wilder. One of the most profound theatre experiences of my life was seeing Our Town in college. It deeply moved and impressed me. I went in not knowing anything about it. I had no expectations at all and just let the play wash over me, take control of me. It’s among a handful of the greatest American plays ever written, along with Streetcar and Long Days Journey into Night.

In some ways, Our Town has been a victim of its own success. It’s the most produced play by an American. Some people seem to think it’s a banal, middlebrow sort of story. It’s anything but that for people who really know the play and Wilder. People tend to have a kind of glib reaction to Wilder: he’s a reassuring, grandfatherly writer. Those assertions are made by people who have never explored the work in depth.

Wilder shares a lucid, steely-eyed grasp of life, always taking account of the darker corners of human existence. This is, in fact, a special concern of his. For example, the alcoholic choir director from Our Town hangs himself. Likewise, in Pullman Car, the passengers don’t learn a thing over the course of their journey during which Wilder discloses a vision of transcendence that lies just beneath the surface. The passengers are too self-absorbed to notice what’s happening around them. Wilder puts forward a very dark, unsentimental understanding of human suffering. And yet what’s so unusual about him is that ultimately he arrives at the meaning of life and the goodness of human nature. He’s one of the American theater’s great optimists. It’s always more fashionable to be a naysayer and a nihilist and Wilder was none of that.

I’m fascinated to see how these short plays will be received in New York.

What kind of Theatre excites you? Theater that moves people. I like emotion. I’m the anti-Brecht in that regard. I want an audience to be deeply moved and have a strong emotional reaction: laugher, hilarity, tears and something that might unnerve or disturb. I like theater to be a vividly emotional experience.

How do these plays fit within the mission of The Peccadillo Theater Company? Since it’s beginnings in 1994, I’ve always thought the mission of the company was sound: To keep classic theater in front of New York audiences. So much of it deserves to be produced and should be produced. The casts of classic American plays are so large that there are few companies that dare to take them on. We always choose plays that are less familiar so that they represent a rediscovery for audiences.

What was your first encounter with these plays? I was first made aware of these plays during Wilder Wilder Wilder, produced by Willow Cabin Theatre Company in 1992. After seeing that production, I went straight to the library and found them and read them. I was green with envy that Willow Cabin found them first and not Peccadillo!

Is this the first Wilder play you’ve directed? Yes. And these are tremendously ambitious plays, especially for one-acts. The Long Christmas Dinner is a perfect play—it’s a little masterpiece and the finest one-act written in this country. Pullman Car is capacious. It holds a lot of different small moments, but then of course, we follow the journey of Harriet’s soul as she ascends the staircase and the play achieves an extraordinary power and authority.

Would you like to do more? Most certainly. If I had my druthers next one would be The Skin of Our Teeth. I saw Elizabeth Ashley play Sabina in a production in the 1970s. I just think it’s so much fun and so funny and it has that wonderful high theatricality that Wilder is so known for. There’s something about directing a comedy that’s irreplaceable. And with Wilder’s comedy, you need to be very careful whenever you apply any degree of irony, because often he is more in earnest than you might imagine.

Wilder is often described as a ‘cosmic’ writer. How do you see these plays and your production in context of the cosmos? What both of these plays share in common is the theatricality around the theme of time and the way time is used. Of course in The Long Christmas Dinner, it’s used telescopically, so we’re able to perceive the continuity in change over a period of 90 years. But in Pullman Car, we catch of glimpse of eternity within ordinary time as we go from the mundane to the transcendent.But always with Wilder these cosmic matters are treated playfully, with a high theatrically that (almost) conceals an underlying seriousness of purpose.

Both of these plays in particular illustrate Wilder’s view that somewhere in the 18th or 19th century, the theatre lost its way and started to become more and more of a realistic, middle-class endeavor. He felt it had lost some of its deep cultural and philosophical/religious resonance. The mythic, language-driven theater of the English renaissance, for example, was replaced by a socially-conscious realism that represented a reduction of the theater’s full potential. I think Wilder was looking to get back to a theater in which language and imagination are front and center, grappling with life’s weightiest questions.

DAN WACKERMAN is the artistic director of The Peccadillo Theater Company. Some directing credits for Peccadillo include: Clifford Odets’ Rocket to the Moon (Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play), William Inge’s A Loss of Roses, Sidney Howard’s The Silver Cord, Jeffrey Hatcher’s Ten Chimneys (NYC premiere), Kaufman & Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, the Schwartz/Fields/Abbott/Smith musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Musical Revival), Lillian Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, Sylvia Regan’s Morning Star, John Murray & Alan Bortez’ Room Service, Dorothy Parker & Arnaud d’Usseau’s The Ladies of the Corridor, Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law (Obie for Outstanding Direction, Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival, Outer Critics Circle nominations for Outstanding Direction & Revival), The Talk of the Town by Ginny Redington & Tom Dawes (MAC nomination). He is a graduate of The Catholic University of America School of Drama (M.F.A. Program).