Monday, October 27

The Hypocrites' Awesome production of Our Town!

The Hypocrites' recently reprised their production of Thorton Wilder's
"Our Town" at the Chopin Theater, which first ran last spring to rave
reviews. Performances were once again sold out, and I hope they
remount again in the future. I haven't seen the play in years, though
I'll never forget how it hit me in the gut the first time I saw it.

"Our Town" is often criticized as sentimental in its portrayal of
small town folk. Wilder doesn't shape the characters fully, partly
because he wants them to serve as everymen and everywomen. While a
play like "Long Day's Journey into Night" acheives universality
through the specificity, the realness of its characters, whom we
relate to despite our differences with them, "Out Town" acheives
universality through prototypes through which we can see ourselves.
The triumph of this production is in infusing these prototypes with
immediacy, so that in Wilder's deftly sketched characters, we see
flashes of recognition.

I had never realized before how skillfully chosen Wilder's vignettes
are, illustrating experiences we all know--the magic of teenage love
as Emily and George admit their attraction to each other; George's
anxiety in growing up as he must find work and become responsible to a
family; Emily learning to negotiate her way in the world, doing well
in school, but insecure about her appearances (her conversation with
her mother about her looks is touchingly tender); Emily's mother
wisely holding back her pride at her daughter's accomplishments; the
way Emily shakes her head when her father treats her as younger than
she believes herself to be; the gossip among the town women; the way
George's sister looks up to him; the small talk between Gibbs and the
chaos of parenting as they decide whether to let George marry Emily,
also the difficulty for parents of letting go; Mrs. Gibbs' desire to
see Paris; Mr. Webb's quixotic dreams of owning an incubator. Though
the third act is devastating, each scene in the first two acts glowed
with such import that I always almost moved to tears before the

I had forgotten, too, the richness of the play, not only dealing with
domesticity, but situating it within genealogy, geography, geology,
meteorology, astronomy. It aims, perhaps a bit ambitiously, at cosmic
siginificance, something Viriginia Woolf acheived, but more quietly.
And it is easy to overlook how daring the play is--it is minimalist in
its staging and storytelling, deconstructive in the stage manager's
commentary, foreshadowing and flashbacks. In this production the
stage manager takes a more cynical tone, which both anticipates and
serves to undermine the first reaction of a jaded urban audience to
rural life. Perhaps the great feat of imagination occurs in the last
act, which Wilder labored over, when he tries to imagine how the dead
would look back upon the living. It was only after the play that it
occured to me that perhaps the reaction of the dead in the play was
unrealistic--might not the ecstatic glow of life outweigh the tragedy
of our blindness to it? But while you're there, the thought doesn't
cross your mind. And the decision allow the audience to smell the
bacon in the third act is a brilliant one, reminding us, as did the
great animated film Ratatouille, that smell is the most Proustian of
our senses. One never sensed the act of living so intensely.

-Ian Le