Nickolas Vaughan, as George, and Alyssa Gagarin, as Emily, star in the Ford’s Theatre production of “Our Town,” directed by Stephen Rayne.
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.
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