Nickolas Vaughan, as George, and Alyssa Gagarin, as Emily, star in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Our Town,” directed by Stephen Rayne.
“They’re both drawing on expressionism and knocking down the fourth wall” Wilder said, adding that both have become such accepted forms that in the case of his uncle, “the audiences are no longer so struck” on technique.
Wilder had many of his own experiences in and around Washington, living for a time in Chevy Chase, Md., and frequently coming into the city for awards and services.
When working on his political novel about the Roman republic, “The Ides of March,” Wilder set up shop in a carrel at the Library of Congress and would, as A. Tappan Wilder put it, “burrow” away in the library stacks. In April of 1962, he presented readings to President John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet, following an introduction by former Connecticut Rep. and Gov. Abraham Ribicoff, who was by then secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.
One particularly well-executed scene comes toward the end of the play, when the deceased Emily Webb, portrayed by Alyssa Gagarin, returns to life as a child in Grover’s Corners and realizes all of the time taken for granted. Gagarin, a relative newcomer to professional theater, ably delivers what in Rayne’s version becomes the most important monologue of the play.
Ahead of Its Time
Modern audiences can lose sense of how revolutionary Wilder’s work was at its time in American theater.
“He was trying to write a play without all the sort of normal trappings” of theater in the 1930s, Rayne explained. In this case, he accomplishes much of that through the set and costume design.
The stage is filled with white chairs, with only two stepladders arriving later as additional props or scenery — meaning the stage is actually more barren than called for in the widely used acting edition of the script. That said, Rayne and scenic designer Tony Cisek accomplish quite a feat in a novel representation of the funeral scene in the play’s final act.
This staging of “Our Town” represents the first time Rayne, a British director with a background that includes the Royal Shakespeare Co., has ever taken on a Wilder script. To prepare, he gained access to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, which houses Wilder’s papers. He also consulted with A. Tappan Wilder.
Professional directors sometimes use the amateur and high school productions as a foil because the show is simultaneously so familiar and unfamiliar. The playwright’s nephew said the production in the historic downtown D.C. theater represents the play as “major piece of drama and not a chocolate milkshake.”
“Our Town” runs through Feb. 24 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW.