“Many plays” Thornton Wilder told The New York Mirror in 1956 “are like blank cheques – certainly mine. The actors and directors put their signature on them.” What’s extraordinary about Our Town, which I had never seen before, is firstly how fresh and experimental the production initially appears and secondly when you realise how closely everything is sticking to Wilder’s intentions and stipulations.
So when David Cromer comes on stage to introduce the play, my first thought was: “Oh this actor/director has written a kind of meta-theatrical introduction” It’s nice. He’s placing himself up there with his actors, saying “I’m part of this too”. His presence is warm, conversational but also confident and authoritarian. He makes it clear he’s got everything in control. The lines he’s saying though aren’t his own but Wilder’s. The original text contains spaces for the theatre, cast, director, etc. What looks like a bold modern decision for a production in-the-round with no scenery, oh blessed relief after the Almeida’s previous regime, is also a 1938 one: “No curtain, no scenery. The audience, arriving sees an empty stage in half light”. Cromer’s only updating in this introduction is the lightest of touches: he doesn’t wear a hat and holds an iPhone in his hand rather than a pipe.
This lightness of touch runs throughout the entire production. It navigates the distance between the world of Grover’s Gorners, New Hampshire in the first few years of the 20 North London in the 21st century. Even when Wilder wrote the text in 1938, he was, like the Stage Manager who serves as the narrator throughout, in a privileged position of knowledge. He knew that many of these men would go to war and not return. He knew that his and their country would enter the greatest economic depression in modern history (well, we’ll see) and he knew that things were already taking a turn for a worst across the ocean.
Sitting in the Almeida in 2014, we know all this and more. We know as much as Cromer and more than the Stage Manager he plays. Wilder chose an average sort of town and the Stage Manager emphasises how it’s everyday, unremarkable sort of place. As he introduces various experts on the town’s composition, what sits in remarkable contrast to 21st century North London is how homogeneous Grover’s Corners is. The total whiteness of all the characters is never even remarked upon and the vast majority are Republican voting Protestants. Luckily, the way the text encourages a production to play against naturalism opens up the possibility of anyone playing anyone thereby placing a modern “every-townness” on the imagined every-town of the past.
Cromer doesn’t go wild with this. There’s no crossgender casting and the young play the young but everyone does their own accent and we don’t have to worry about how “realistic” it might be Rhashan Stone is Rebcecca Gibbs’s father. Just as we’ve been told where the hills and the Baptist church lie in relation to where we’re sitting, Stone is Dr Gibbs because we’ve been told that’s who he is and that’s enough. In terms of what actually happens in Our Town, well nothing very much. It’s a small unremarkable town, as has already been mentioned. There are storylines of course. You might call them soap-like but they are more The Archers than Eastenders. People fall in love, get married, die. People want to go on holiday but they can’t get their husband to agree. Wilder’s achievement is to make us care about these really unremarkable characters by using form to shine a light on them so we see the small tragedies of each of their lives. His ultimate theme appears the tragedy of life in general: that we forget to appreciate every second when we’re living it. This may sound a little like self-help and you can see some of the sinews of that tradition in this classic American play.
Cromer’s production has a certain elegant archness to it that is frequently perched on the edge of irony. It manages this through the very lightness of touch that is so remarkable about it. It feels like the production itself is standing at a cool distance from the material. The British accents make the town feel less clichéd and provide a distance from the sentimentality allowing it to come across as truly felt at times. Perhaps I wanted to come out of the other side of the sentimentality, the Address to Graduates aspect of it all and be genuinely moved. Instead the lightness of touch eventually felt like an unwillingness to fully commit.