A bold new production of Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN has opened at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Stephen Rayne who did such a magnificent job last season directing the Theater J/Ford’s Theatre co-production of PARADE. The new staging brings back some of the cast members of PARADE and reunites Rayne with scene designer Tony Cisek, who does so many brilliant sets for so many companies around town, including us. Now you wouldn’t think there’s much design at play in this production of OUR TOWN. What there is, for a good long while, is very little set.
Oh, there’s the cantilevered, radically-raked stage, swooping down from back-to-front at most-likely the maximum allowable gradation. And there are the 40+ identical white chairs. Now these are chairs one mostly expects to find in Act III of the play, in the simple (though devastating) cemetery scene, and here they are in this production, more chairs than needed laid out in rows for Act I. Clearly, this production team has a surprise up its sleeves for Act III. And, boy, do it ever! I’ll let the students explain. Suffice to say that between Acts I and II I didn’t see a curtain descend to mask any scene changes. Between Acts II and III while I was out getting a drink of water, a black screen was quietly dropped. And when it was lifted to start Act III, a totally startling, brilliant pay-off was in place. That, my friends, is the definition of a “coup de théâtre” (or a “sensational bit of stagecraft!) and a brilliant realization of the truly magical, stark, haunting specter that is the cemetery scene in Act III.
I look forward to reading what others had to say about OUR TOWN, whether it be their first time seeing it, or, like actress Kim Schraf (a frequent Theater J performer and cast member of OUR TOWN who so graciously spoke to our group on Thursday night, together with PARADE cast member Kevin McCallister) someone who’s seen (and been in) the play multiple times. Never have we seen a physicalization of this play in the way Rayne and Cisek allowed us to experience it.
But this Ford’s production is certainly not the first racially integrated version of the play. Our own Delia Taylor and her mother Deborah staged a similarly conceived, non-traditional version at The Theatre Lab. And then there’s this version of the play performed by young students in Compton, LA — do check out this incredibly video documentation; OT: Our Town is a documentary which looks at Dominguez High School’s brave experiment and the people who struggled to make it happen.
A radically new visioning of OUR TOWN is also on our minds as we introduce to you the first glimpse of what we’re looking to produce at Theater J next season: The world premiere staging of Darrah Cloud’s reimagining of Wilder’s classic, moved from Grover’s Corner, NH to Skokie, Illinois. The play is called OUR SUBURB. It’s an homage to OUR TOWN (there have been many over the years, but never has there been one to conjoin the Chicago suburbs, serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Holocaust survivors, the Nazis threatened march through Skokie in 1977, amid all the hijinks and angst of senior year at Niles East — or is it New Trier West? — I’m forgetting). Anyway, with the playwright’s permission, I’ve given our Theater J student subscribers an insider peek at Darrah Could’s play, and we’ll be getting some feedback on the adaptation in comments here as well. It’s interesting to go from Ibsen’s AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE and examining the adapters’ strategies in the two different versions we’ve now read and experienced in BOGED (TRAITOR) and Arthur Miller’s version, and to now see how Darrah Cloud pays homage and also departs from the Wilder. Will be interesting to continue contemplating the value of such updating of timeless classics — choosing, as many a playwright has done before, to rewrite a masterpiece to make it speak in new ways to a new situation. Why, if a masterpiece is indeed “timeless,” does it make any sense to transplant and transpose and give new language and new character names and actions to already-durable prototypes? What’s the case to be made for a radical update like BOGED or SUBURB? And are the updates “radical” enough? What if a transposition is more subtle and gentle? I’ve had experience with that — see THE SEAGULL ON 16TH STREET! and click through a bunch of different links to see differing reactions to an adaptation that may not have gone far enough… or did it go too far?
Anyway, a salute to all the great artists at Ford’s who brought Wilder’s enduring masterpiece to life!