That staple of high school theater departments and community repertory companies, Thornton Wilder’s Old Town has had countless revivals since it won the Pulitzer for Drama in 1938. Still, it’s probably safe to say that this classic of Americana has never been adapted quite like Casey Llewellyn has done the job in O, Earth, which transforms it, fairly astonishingly, into LGBT agitprop. Wilder’s meta-theatrical devices felt modern 75 years ago, but this Foundry Theater production takes boundary-bending up a notch, crossing centuries, genders, identities, genres and the Fourth Wall, again and again, while still finding time to ask the Big Questions about life and what we are all doing here.
Audiences will sometimes wonder where they are during the show’s 100 minutes, but as Our Town’s Emily is heard to say in O, Earth, it’s best to go with the flow. The show opens on a monumental dirt pile that had me wondering if Llewellyn’s source material wasn’t really Happy Days (there is an air of Beckett’s absurd “normalcy” here) and from then on swerves wildly between Wilder and Llewellyn at every turn.
The script lifts scenes and characters from Our Town but also invites in Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, informal leaders of the nascent gay rights movement in the Village of the 1970s. The juxtaposition is deliberately jarring, and we might expect one of these groups to suffer from the comparison, yet Llewellyn proves to be both a loving reader of Wilder and an astute observer of LGBT history.
Getting these interests to dovetail takes some doing, but Wilder’s constant acknowledging of theater’s artifice gives license to Llewellyn’s shenanigans. As in Old Town, the characters and events of O, Earth are highly symbolic, but with new nuances. Wilder’s all-American boy, George Gibbs, is now a transman (organically incarnated by the androgynous Jess Barbagallo), while dutiful daughter and housewife Emily Webb is inhabited by a libertarian streak that breaks her out of Grover’s Corners (unthinkable for Wilder’s character but perfectly plausible given Kristen Sieh’s hopeful energy). Llewellyn’s Stage Manager (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) is an African-American woman who wonders aloud when she’ll be given the agency and visibility to tell her own story instead of facilitating those of Wilder’s white characters. The most noticeable tweak is reserved for Wilder’s dead ghosts, however, replaced by Johnson and Rivera who, rather than keep to a mournful cemetery on the hill, still have an agenda to advance, the urgency of which is underscored by director Dustin Wills’ casting of real-life trans activists Julienne “Mizz June” Brown and Cecilia Gentili.
So what could Wilder’s nostalgic paean to the uncomplicated WASP life of early 20th century America have to say to the LGBT community in 2016? The question isn’t facetious, although this is where O, Earth takes a farcical turn. plopping both groups onto the studio set of “Ellen.” Suddenly, the desire for basic material and family comforts that drives Wilder’s townspeople is encapsulated in the marriage between Ellen Degeneres and Portia DiRossi, whose quotidian joys are a regular guest on Degeneres’ show.
But it is on this point precisely that Llewellyn skewers the gray-suited gay icon and the gay rights movement more broadly (aided, wickedly, by Moe Angelos’ send-up of Degeneres and Emily Davis’ performance as her needy wife – a blistering hoot). After shooting a segment featuring a gay couple who proposed to each other in the aisle of a Home Depot, Ellen is troubled by how nice (“not pervy in any way”) her guests were and wonders subconsciously if she could have invited them onto her show if they had been less palatable to the general public. But when asked by Johnson what the gay rights movement has accomplished for trans rights and the most marginalized of the LGBT community, Ellen has only the example of her own marriage to offer (to which Rivera replies, with disgust that feels authentic coming from Gentili, “That’s bullshit!”).
Llewellyn’s Stage Manager asks pointedly, in one of many thoughtful asides, what makes us in the 21st century (media-savvy, politically correct, consumption-obsessed individual hedonists) still those simple folk of Our Town. Llewellyn’s Ellen answers the question indirectly: we are still conforming to a code and primarily concerned with our own individual well-being within that code. In substance, nothing has changed.
O, Earth is a doubly surprising feat, thanks to the combined powers of Llewellyn’s clever and fanciful text (the characters frequently struggle with being characters in Wilder’s play with obvious metaphorical implications for Llewellyn’s overarching concerns; there are dream sequences and an underground whale…) and the Foundry’s commitment to keeping the struggles of society’s marginals at the fore of the stage, if only the real, wooden one at HERE. The production is a cathartic revisiting and revitalizing of Wilder’s text, so frequently produced and often so blandly done. Wilder himself is on stage, played with a rueful nostalgia by Martin Moran, to answer some of our questions about the work’s genesis and remind us of its author’s enthrallment with the modern experiments of Gertrude Stein (who was, of course, Degeneres’ distant ancestor as a lesbian tastemaker and who made no secret of her “marriage” to Alice B. Toklas). But it is above all a production that is very much of and for our times, with a sly sampling of media tropes, an irreverent impatience with canons and conventions and a shot-across-the-bow discussion of LGBT rights, by a cast and crew for whom these are not abstract issues.
Whether it is Wilder’s Town that is under scrutiny or Llewellyn’s more universal Earth, both authors would agree that we shouldn’t need the dead to remind us that life is worth the living. Though O, Earth treads a fine line between punchy entertainment and preachy didacticism, the Foundry’s argument cannot be denied, that it is imperative that we work as a society to make that living more just and inclusive for all. If that is not a muscle that overpaid media stars in Burbank can bring themselves to exercise, then it seems only fitting that the issue comes full circle, back to the Village, its activists and its artists.