By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
OUR TOWN By THORNTON WILDER At SOUTH COAST REPERTORY 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa Through March 28
GROSS INDECENCY: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde By MOISÉS KAUFMAN At the MARK TAPER FORUM 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Through March 29
The central character of Our Town isn't anybody in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire - the setting of Thornton Wilder's 1938 small-town portrait, now on view at South Coast Repertory. It isn't the Gibbs or the Webb clan (the pair of families who become related by marriage in the course of this saga); not the sweet, simple-minded teenage groom, George (Jesus Mendoza), nor his precocious bride, Emily (Sanaa Lathan); not crusty Constable Warren (Art Koustik), nor the town drunk (Gregory Millar). Rather, the central figure is a stopwatch that dangles from the neck of the Stage Manager-narrator (Kimberly Scott) who oversees the conspicuously theatrical re-enactment of events. (Upon entering the theater, the audience views the actors at the stage's periphery, applying makeup before playing their parts on a Spartan set designed by Michael Devine - a few mismatching chairs and a couple of tables in front of a scrim.)
Time is Our Town's protagonist, as it is in a number of world classics written around or before midcentury. Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood comes to mind, not to mention every play by Anton Chekhov. Time replaces action in these works; a series of incidents unfolds with no central conflict in sight, drawing our attention to life's minutiae, the day-to-day rituals from which we draw meaning and the illusion of stability. The focus may seem tiny, but the concern is ageless. In fact, Our Town, so frequently sugarcoated in productions, is actually a stark wind-up for post-World War II existentialism, for Sartre and Beckett, and director Mark Rucker deserves enormous credit for conveying the looming austerity of Wilder's vision.
At the end of Act 1, Emily refers to a letter from a school friend, addressed to "Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, United States of America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, the Solar System, The Universe, In the Eye of God." ("And the mailman even delivered it!" Emily exclaims.)
It's a little joke - and a big setup for the play's poetic shift of perspective, from the microscopic to the telescopic. Near play's end, an assembly of dead souls sits patiently in the cemetery - in chairs, dressed in black, staring forward nonchalantly as they are visited by grief-stricken or merely befuddled living relatives. In a scene that never fails to reduce audiences to blubber, young Emily - who has just died giving birth - visits her past, unseen by her youthful father, who bounds in looking for his "birthday girl." The forlorn Emily wonders why, in her fleeting life, she never paid attention to the things that matter, to the people around her. Under Anne Militello's gentle lights, the scrim transforms from its wash of streaking rain into a canopy of stars, visually supporting Wilder's attribution of Act 3 to Dante's Purgatorio:
Oh stars of glory, constellation steeped in virtue . . . You are so close to the ultimate salvation, Beatrice began, that your eyes must be keen and clear. Therefore, before entering it, look down and see how great a world I have put beneath your feet.
Such is the perspective that ultimately pokes fun at a professor (Hal Landon Jr.) who offers a statistical breakdown of the local population: religion, income, profession, etc. The professor's address is a kind of prophetic joke upon the bloated sociological and ethnic obsessions that fuel so much of our theater and television. When you're looking down from the cosmos, such concerns look pretty small. Call this a play about the Big Time.
Our Town's lyrical beauty rises above Rucker's wobbly production, whose biggest fault lies in the too often strained or mannered performances by his ensemble. Scott's Stage Manager impregnates her narration with so much irony, it unwittingly condescends. Greg Watanabe shows some comic charm as the dullard milkman but lacks the stage presence to fill the auditorium, while Jennifer Parsons' Mrs. Gibbs and Millar's resident alcoholic at least comport themselves with dignity.
Rucker's casting is assertively multicultural (Emily is black, her mother Asian, her dad Hispanic) - here a mixed blessing. True, by Act 3 the anomalies of skin color have been scrubbed away by Wilder's universal emotions, presumably Rucker's point. But that point - reinforcing the sociological mindset that Wilder satirizes - comes at a cost, for it suggests a harmonious American melting pot. If Rucker really believes that, I don't know what planet he's been living on.
Prior to World War II, there was an understanding, at least in the arts, that topics from almanacs and newspapers and courtrooms - i.e., "temporal" matters - were on a lower stratum than "eternal" matters, questions of faith and spirit. But something happened after the war, particularly here and in Britain: Those priorities slowly and subtly got reversed. Perhaps it had something to do with Kenneth Tynan's landmark 1956 review of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger - an influential, laudatory and impassioned document that was also dead wrong - mistaking Osborne's domestic tragedy as a trumpet call for a lost generation, and even describing the author as a "spokesman." Since Tynan's review, or so it seems, the theater on two continents - running in lock step with the growing litigiousness of special-interest groups - has been nurturing dramas about indignation and entitlement, as though this were really the stuff of tragedy.