Over at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, the schoolkids of Grover's Corners in Thornton Wilder's Our Town pour off the stage, like water from a bucket strewn onto some imagined sidewalk. They then race along a long, narrow passage that separates that first single row of seats from the bleachers behind it. What you might see is the almost cinematic spectacle of actors racing through the audience in such proximity that you're sitting in the middle of a chase scene: bodies bolting by the faces that observe.
The town's adults sit at two tables in the middle of the stage, and their stasis strikes a poetical counterpoint to the action that just preceded it. Director David Cromer isn't afraid to let the stasis linger. This isn't poetry in motion; rather, it's motion and motionlessness as poetry — in sound and sight.
This poetry stems largely from Cromer's decision to place the audience around and even within the action. The production has been brought here after making a splash off-Broadway and in Chicago, and Cromer told the Weekly how much of the rehearsal here involved layering the size of the gestures and voices, so the story can continue to track without losing the intimacy that is his production's hallmark.
Our Town is an American version of Dylan Thomas' Welsh village–set play Under Milk Wood, seemingly an homage to life in an American small town that often gets mistaken for a Hallmark card illustrated by Norman Rockwell.
We sometimes think of Our Town as stuck in the past, despite Wilder's obsessive interest in time as an active protagonist, the inexorable god that slowly brings us to our knees and then to our graves. With a final act dedicated to the townsfolk lingering in the purgatorial stillness of the local graveyard, waiting, waiting to let the life they had lived slide from memory before moving on, it should be clear that the author had more on his mind than the sentimentality of a father who scolds his son for not helping his mother chop wood, thereby reducing the youth to tears, causing the patriarch to up the kid's allowance.
Rather, this is a work about time and distance, a quixotic appeal for closeness, for listening to and looking at each other.
To this end, Cromer stages the play by drawing it close, keeping the house lights on over the audience, in order for us to more easily see and feel the stoic resolve of characters to keep emotion and intimacy at bay — understandable given the stats on infant mortality and women dying in childbirth in the early 20th century. When the going gets tough, the tough get tougher, which Cromer invites us to see close up in the staging of the play that's as deceptively freewheeling as a dress rehearsal, in Alison Siple's mostly contemporary costumes.
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Here, as the production's impresario/Stage Manager, Helen Hunt flashes a cellphone as she parades across the playing space. The tone of her narration is no-nonsense, as she cautions Professor Willard (local actor David LM McIntyre) of the "state university" to keep his empirical survey of the town's anthropology brief. After all, Willard is speaking to an audience in 2012. No time for indulgences of eccentric academic enthusiasm in the ADD era. Just like there's no time for indulgences of emotion at the turn of the last century. When a young widower weeps at the grave of his wife, we hear mutterings from dead souls in the cemetery, saying: Honestly, is that any way for a fella to behave.
There's a kitchen table at each end of the elongated stage — representing the domiciles of two families, the Webbs and the Gibbses. Amidst the superb ensemble of local talent and some from the New York production, Lori Meyers as Mrs. Gibbs is the embodiment of pioneering strength that is at the heart of this production. This lies in the quality of her stride, the veneer of impatience with which she accomplishes the tasks of the day.
Cromer and his ensemble demonstrate that while Our Town, in part, appeals to us to maintain vestiges of what we find sentimental, its true stance is that life, in the end, is just the opposite.
OUR TOWN | By Thornton Wilder, staged by David Cromer | Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica | Tues.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. | Through Jan. 31 | (310) 434-3414 | thebroadstage.com