'Our Town': Theater Review

Our Town Helen Hunt - H 2012
Iris Schneider

Our Town Helen Hunt - H 2012

Denatured reinterpretation of durable chestnut forgoes precise detail in pursuit of a more generalized, and less valuable, blunt universality.

Helen Hunt stars in David Cromer's revival of Thornton Wilder's award-winning production.

Our Town deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1938, and it has been claimed that not a day goes by that it is not performed somewhere in the United States. That makes it a tall order to attempt to reinvent the piece. In some respects, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it usually can survive a bad performance. The current mounting of the popular and honored off-Broadway production by David Cromer at The Broad Stage shoehorns the staging into a long, narrow rectangle surrounded by the audience, reconfiguring the larger house into just 375 seats.

It does not confer any discernible intimacy. This is Wilder served cold from the fridge. Abounding in anachronism, the staging makes every effort to avoid conveying a sense of period (1901-1913) or any accompanying tinge of nostalgia. Of course, at this remove, Grover’s Corners, N.H., is as unreal a concoction as Ilyrium or Never Never Land, and the costumes and props reinforce this with a glaring inconsistency of design choice, ranging from paperbacks to pantsuits. Stripping the town of all its specificity of time and place merely reveals the underlying pretensions of the play’s observations, which Wilder’s canny carpentry had so artfully concealed. That art of rooted detail is what gave the play the genuine and evergreen profundity that made it so much more than Edgar Lee Masters filtered through 1930s political theater styles.

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Appropriately, Helen Hunt plays a convincing contemporary stage manager, rather than The Stage Manager, an inherently patriarchal figure who makes less sense and therefore less impact in this casting. She is astringent and effacing, so that the force of the sexual politics that makes the play still relevant is dissipated. Everything about this show is professional and brisk, yet the effect is so bald that the richness of the material is barely plumbed. Acting styles jar incommodiously with the text. Its ideas still get across, they just don’t work nearly as well with this overcompensating contemporary sensibility.

Of course, the ubiquitous promotion suggests that this represents a major event in Los Angeles theater, primarily because it is fundamentally imported. If someone wanted to do a major event with this material, perhaps they might try instead Ned Rorem’s opera based on the play: The Broad did a swell job with a homegrown version of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy in its first season.

Venue: The Broad Stage, Santa Monica (runs through Feb. 12)
Cast: Kati Brazda, Tim Curtis, Nathan Dame, Donna Jay Fulks, Coby Getzug, Jennifer Grace, Nicholas R. Grava, Helen Hunt, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Matthew Kimbrough,?Ronete Levenson, Jonathan Mastro, David LM McIntyre, James McMenamin,?Lori Myers, Maximilian Osinski, Daniel Stewart, Jeff Still with Dan Alemshah, Elizabeth Audley, Wayne Baldwin, Timothy Howard Davis, Jonathan Edwards, Lesley Fera, Lisa Goodman, Dana Jacks, George Ketsios, Jonathan Palmer, Vincent Selhorst-Jones
Director: David Cromer
Lighting Director: Heather Gilbert
Scenic & Properties Designer: Stephen Dobay
Costume Designer: Alison Siple
Original Music & Music Designer: Jonathan Mastro