Arthur Penn saw his chance in a proposal that the Hungarian writer/director George Tabori and his wife Viveca Lindfors made to the board of directors of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, where Penn and his friend and colleague William Gibson happened to live. The Playhouse had operated for decades as a typical summer stock theater, often featuring stars in leading roles, but what was known as “The Straw Hat Circuit” was fading in popularity and the theater’s board of directors, hearing Tabori and Lindfors’ proposal, decided to try a different approach to summer theater.
Thoreau told us that the bluebird carries his sky on his back. He knew if we could see this we would know the color of Heaven. This is the way Our Town works. It is quiet. One scene — the one at the soda fountain — makes the difficulty of talking almost a touchable thing. Laconic sentences in the play mean more than just their sense; they pull the listener. “Know they will” says Howie Newsome, a couple of times. Syntax made into sound. To Wilder this seemed to be the language of New England. And this is precisely the sound that the Theatre Company at Hubbard Hall production found so directly last weekend.
Ah, the tone of a production. Was Schumann right when he quoted Schlegel at the top of his score to the Fantasie this way: “Through all the world’s dream there sounds one tone for him who can hear it?” I’m thinking now of many different pieces — Our Town of Thornton Wilder, first. This concentrated text has the bareness, the emptiness of Greek tragedy on the page. The actions, however, are humble. Is there a single tone there?
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town lives and breathes and gently enlarges how we see ourselves way beyond the confines of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire or small town America — thanks to the current production at the Williamstown Theater Festival directed by Nicholas Martin. Martin has staged it exactly as it was written and first produced in 1938 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton and a month later on Broadway. The text is verbatim and the notes for no scenery — only wooden straight-backed chairs (quite an enormous number here hang off the backdrop), two round wooden tables and no props — are followed to a T.
In the past week I have seen three plays, and each has been a play about community and/or family: Ödön von Horváth’s Judgment Day, part of Bard’s Summerfest, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, and the quintessential play of small town American, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Horváth presents a small town as well, an Austro-Hungarian community poisoned and corrupted by its own preferences, which are fickle, of course, because the preferences depend on rumour and whim. Six Degrees of Separation explores an even scarier community, the impersonal environment of Manhattan, where standing, one thinks, has to be maintained on a daily basis, if one doesn’t want simply to disappear from the world. Our Town’s reputation as an American classic which resonates the true spirit of the simple life of rural New England has remained almost inviolable, although it is the work of a cosmopolitan homosexual who grew up in an intellectual mid-western family. His American simplicity came from his friend Gertrude Stein, not an intimate acquaintance with life in the Monadnock region. We accept it as a play that rings true, but, knowing that Our Town is anything but a series of impressions of the playwright’s youth in southern New Hampshire, I still find that Wilder can still get his audiences to meet him on his own terms. He is looking at his characters and their environment from a certain metaphysical distance.