Few, if any, American plays have been read and performed in more high school auditoriums and college theaters than “Our Town.” Many productions through the years have treated the fictional Grover’s Corners a bit too literally, making the play more idyllic than its reality.
The 75th anniversary staging at the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., generally does not make that error, in large part thanks to design elements.
Director Stephen Rayne’s most significant decision, however, comes in the diversity of the cast, creating mixed families that interact seamlessly and do not appear out of place.
Rayne also picked an African-American woman identified by the name Portia for the role of the stage manager, who serves as the play’s narrator and scene setter for the audience, existing in the space between the play and the audience.
In this rendition, the stage manager begins as a friend of the audience, with a disposition that might be too warm for some, but that seems to be the point.
Rayne said the role carries a “different sensibility when it’s being spoken by a woman and particularly an African-American woman.” That holds true in execution.
Casting an African-American woman required the approval of playwright Thornton Wilder’s family, because the standard contract for producing “Our Town” in a professional setting contains a provision requiring that the role be played by an age-appropriate and gender- specific actor. But A. Tappan Wilder, the literary executor of the Wilder estate, said the family often waives that when a director’s artistic vision compels it.
Rayne’s certainly did. He said he wanted to stage a production that existed not only for modern Washington but also not in any time.
“More than pretty much any other American city ... it’s vibrantly multicultural,” Rayne said, adding the exceptions of New York and Los Angeles. “It’s also a city ... where an awful lot of people are involved in politics.”
The Ford’s Theatre production stresses the importance of, as Rayne put it, “not looking over the fence,” which can be difficult for those in Washington political circles.
The Brecht Connection
By the third act, when the play takes its dark and introspective turn at the local cemetery, the stage manager becomes far distant from the audience, heightening the alienation effect, as one might expect from, say, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht.
Rayne referenced Brecht in a recent conversation with CQ Roll Call, and A. Tappan Wilder noted the similarities between the two writers.
“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.