Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Death Becomes Her

January 20, 2012

Helen Hunt in Our Town
David Cromer’s much lauded production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town made it to Los Angeles this week. It’s landed at The Broad Stage, a venue that is quickly developing an incredible track record for bringing the best in theater to Los Angeles. I’m happy to report that Our Town is another chapter in that growing, remarkable history. The production dates back to 2008 where it originated under the auspices of Chicago’s The Hypocrites and a successful long run in New York followed. (In fact it was the longest New York of run of the play ever since its premiere in 1938.) Director David Cromer and many of the original cast have followed the show West along with Helen Hunt who plays the role of the stage manager as she had during a later part of the New York run. And what’s arrived at The Broad is sensational and profoundly moving.

Wilder’s tale of everyday American lives in the early 20th Century was marked from its premiere with a stark, unusually barren staging – an artifice used to strip away what he saw as alienating pretenses of the stage including elaborate sets and costumes. Cromer follows Wilder’s stage directions to this extent with his actors pantomiming activities like cooking and cleaning. But Cromer uses other devices to brilliantly strip away the veneer of nostalgia associated with Our Town exposing the dark and blistering heart of the show. The stage of The Broad auditorium has been extended out over the entire seating area with the audience sitting on risers atop the expanded space in a U-shaped area. The narrow central corridor contains two tables with four chairs each and large walkways lie directly behind the first row of seating. All of this space is used by the cast completely integrating the audience into the day-to-day life of Grover’s Corners. The town’s children run down these aisles and Hunt is as likely to be sitting next to you as addressing you from the stage. Cromer goes further, though, dressing the cast in contemporary street clothes and playing down New England accents and overly expressive affect.

This all adds up to a certain darkness that sets in from the moment things begin, and suddenly the whole show is imbued by an awareness of human frailty and transience. This is not about longing for the past, but the exact opposite. The Our Town stands and screams with rage over our inability to live in the beauty of the moment which comes home to roost in a powerful third act. Cromer closes the show with a brilliant coup de théatre that I won’t describe here, but suffice it to say the audience was filled with sobbing patrons and I’m not ashamed to say I was among them. What’s more, not only has Cromer managed to expose the raw, painful crux of the play, but he’s done so in a way that feels contemporary. Despite its setting of events from over a century ago, this production of Our Town struck me as urgent a show as Next to Normal with modern day American families going about their lives. This is a not a gauzy John Ford version of the past but a dangerous, beautiful throbbing 'now' to be contended with. There is an excellent cast, not only including a superbly subtle Hunt, but James McMenamin as a heartbreaking George and Jennifer Grace as an Emily nearly bursting with youth. But all in the ensemble are quite good and there wasn’t a single moment in the calm, well-paced show that wasn’t worth savoring. I can’t say enough good things about the show. You should see it if you haven’t already before it’s gone on Feb 12.


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